Worsening effects of climate change threaten Minnesota’s work to improve water quality

Contact: Cathy Malakowsky, 507-383-5949

As Minnesotans across the state suffer visible and devastating effects of our changing climate, protecting Minnesota’s most valuable resource is becoming increasingly difficult. Research shows that progress being made to improve the quality of our lakes and rivers is offset by climate change: extreme weather conditions and unprecedented rainfall, including 11 mega-rain events since 2000, are slowing progress on protecting our water. Two new state reports call for swift action to increase resiliency and combat the expected worsening effects of climate change on Minnesota’s waters. 

The Environmental Quality Board’s 2020 State Water Plan and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Progress Update call for collaboration, action, and integrating climate change mitigation and adaptability into all levels of water planning in Minnesota. Both reports underscore the connection between climate and water resources and the need to align priorities, policies, programs, and actions for the coming years.

“Climate and water shape our lives. What we do here in Minnesota not only affects us, it also affects our downstream neighbors. We must take action on several fronts to build resiliency to climate change in order to protect our recreation, our economy, and our way of life,” said Laura Bishop, EQB chair and commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The 2020 State Water Plan, a directive from the Legislature, includes several strategies for mitigating the impact of climate change on water resources and calls for action on five fronts:  

  • Ensure drinking water is safe and sufficient
  • Manage landscapes to protect and improve water quality
  • Manage infrastructure for greater resiliency
  • Manager landscapes to hold water and reduce runoff
  • Promote resiliency in quality of life

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2014 by multiple Minnesota agencies, set a goal of cutting nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Minnesota lakes and streams by 10-20 percent by 2025. A five-year progress update concludes the state is not on track to meet its goal. Among key takeaways:

There is good news/bad news on nutrients levels:

  • Phosphorus concentrations in nearly half of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers have decreased, but nitrate-nitrogen concentrations have increased in nearly 40 percent of sites, suggesting efforts to reduce this nutrient are either insufficient and/or need more time to be effective.
  • Increasingly higher precipitation and river flow during the past two decades have increased overall levels of phosphorus in lakes and rivers, offsetting lower concentration levels and working against overall work to improve water quality.

Both reports recommend either expanding existing programs or adopting new ones. Many actions that increase resiliency have multiple benefits. For example, several agricultural best management practices that improve water quality also reduce greenhouse gases. These include nitrogen fertilizer and manure efficiency, cover crops, improved soil health, and wetland restoration.

“With roughly half of the land in Minnesota used for agriculture, producers play a pivotal role in increasing the state’s resiliency. Our producers and ag professionals are already working to meet the challenges of climate change and water resource protection. Many of them are increasing soil heath, expanding cover crops, and planting vegetative buffers. Now we need to continue support for these programs and increase participation across many more acres,” said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

Long-term strategies require government-led and voluntary actions among a wide range of partners including state agencies, local governments, businesses, communities, nonprofits, and individuals in an “all hands on deck” approach. Payoffs of protecting and improving water quality in Minnesota in the face of climate change will yield important rewards: clean drinking water, resilient landscapes, fishable and swimmable surface waters, and more.

For the full reports and more information, visit the EQB website, Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy Progress Update webpage, and Our Minnesota Climate, a new website highlighting work being done by all sectors across the state