Clean water requires action, panelists urge

Time is running out to protect and restore central Minnesota's water resources, and a group of panelists at Central Lakes College Thursday urged the public to take action.

The clear blue lakes of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area were photographed in autumn from Miner’s Hill near Ironton. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch
The clear blue lakes of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area were photographed in autumn from Miner’s Hill near Ironton. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch

Time is running out to protect and restore central Minnesota's water resources, and a group of panelists at Central Lakes College Thursday urged the public to take action.

"Sometimes what is iconic to a state sometimes gets over, how do I say, taken for granted," said Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation, while introducing the speakers. "For whatever reason, Minnesota is taking for granted its lakes. I can tell you from afar, it is what we think of when we're coming to Minnesota. We think of your lakes, we see your great water resources."

The forum-"What is Clean Water Worth for Northern Minnesota Communities?"-was sponsored by the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government, one of its regular educational forums on a variety of topics. About 60 people sat in the Chalberg Theatre while three presenters addressed the topic of water pollution-Kent Montgomery, CLC natural resources instructor; Pat Welle, professor emeritus from Bemidji State University; and Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for nonprofit WaterLegacy.

Ketchel, who moved to Minnesota three years ago after working on similar issues in Alaska, said she watched as that state's residents took for granted the abundant salmon populations without recognizing impending threats.

"If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago," Ketchel said. "This is going to take a collective force for all of us to come together. What party you're associated with, it doesn't matter. Water is what's central in bringing us all together."


Montgomery spoke of the current state of lakes in Crow Wing County and surrounding northern communities. He said some lakes in the county are naturally clear, while others are naturally fertile and produce algae, resulting in a wide range of water conditions. Some of those characteristics are driven by human behavior, he said, and identifying what was within local control and what was outside of it would help determine where to focus conservation efforts.

Some contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyl and mercury, come from as far away as China to contaminate Minnesota lakes.

"These things that we see here, somehow are global issues," Montgomery said. "They're not things that we can fix within a watershed within a state or even within a country. They travel across boundaries and they have widespread effects."

What can be controlled locally is the nutrients and other contaminants directly polluting water. A glance at impaired waters in the state shows water bodies in central Minnesota are relatively clean and have a fighting chance of remaining so, with vigilance from residents, advocates and governments, Montgomery said.

With $4.3 billion spent in Minnesota each year on lake-based recreation, generating $300 million in tax dollars, it's not only stewardship benefits that can be realized.

"Even if you don't care about lakes, you do have a stake in it," Montgomery said. "It affects all of our economy, our tax base, everything else."

Montgomery said identifying the areas in which the greatest impacts can occur-within 1,000 feet of shorelines, for example, and sensitive shorelines home to the greatest diversity of species-offer the biggest bang for the buck.

"When you start to see some of the dollars that flow into that, if it doesn't ring your bell to go out fishing or paddling, perhaps the dollar signs do that for you," Montgomery said.


Welle's presentation focused more on the economics, sharing some of his research on the cost-benefit analyses of improving water quality. Welle did extensive research on both people's willingness to pay for improved environmental outcomes, as well as the direct economic impact of degraded water quality on real estate values.

"Economics isn't the only rule as to how we set those priorities, but it's an important consideration," Welle said. "Our environmental assets tend to be undervalued in a market economy."

Welle said his studies have shown when a solution is within reach, many Minnesotans are willing to increase taxes or electrical costs, for example, to offset the costs of achieving those solutions. To reduce mercury contamination, a majority of Minnesotans in Welle's survey said they would pay a higher electrical bill. Before the introduction of the 2008 Legacy Amendment, a proposal for a special assessment on property taxes garnered the support of property owners on the Gull Chain of Lakes, Welle said, to the tune of $200 each.

"People are willing to pay more in taxes to get this," Welle said. "It's a little bit more like a school bond referendum."

Welle said if people understood the degradation of water quality can lead to a one-sixth reduction in lakeshore property values, they might be even more willing to make changes in the name of clean water.

"What you do with your lakeshore has a collective and long-term impact," Welle said. "That's one lesson to take away in terms of what's at stake economically. ... It's a complex issue. It's really going to take international improvement. But we as individuals, it starts with us. So it's important to think about those things."

Maccabee said economics were a part of the equation in a different way, too-the economic benefit to corporations to pollute when the consequences were weak and ineffective.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with a shareholder company doing that. That's their job," Maccabee said. "What's broken is our government. Because what our democracy is supposed to put limits on is that profit-making motive."


Maccabee focused much of her presentation on the sulfide copper-nickel mining proposals in Minnesota, which were the reason her organization WaterLegacy was formed. The threats of sulfate to the waters of Minnesota are varied and dangerous, she said, including to wild rice and to aquatic and human populations. Not only is its impact measurable on wild rice populations directly, it also promotes the bioaccumulation of mercury in fish species and releases phosphorus from sediment, encouraging algae blooms.

The costs go beyond those associated with lake-based recreation, Maccabee said.

"We're talking about the costs for developmental delays, and psychological treatment, and IEP (individualized educational plan) plans in schools, and diminished earning because of lowered IQ."

Maccabee said it was important to realize sulfide pollution does not arise only from mining, but is also introduced into water by agriculture. A map showing where wild rice once grew in the state compared to where it grows now shows correlation between heavily agricultural areas and the loss of wild rice.

Maccabee said in her opinion and the opinion of the federal government, Minnesota does a poor job when it comes to permitting and monitoring pollution and industries with the potential for negative impact on the environment. She said with the possible introduction of a new industry to the state, it was important to consider this history.

"This is why when we're looking at what's the truth about how our policies have worked, that should influence the kinds of decisions we make," she said. "So far, Minnesota has not done a good job of even regulating taconite mining, where the risks are known and could be addressed."

Maccabee said much of the lack of fortitude in regulation can be traced to political decision-making rather than science-based policy.

"One of the reasons they are making the kinds of decisions they are is they don't hear from a lot of us," Maccabee said. "If we are not taking action, we are taken for granted. They hear from the industry, and they hear from the lobbyists every single day. So if we are not taking action, signing petitions, taking our feet and actually going down and meeting with them, our voices will not be heard. And our democracy will not work properly."


In a question-and-answer session following the presentations, the three were joined by Levi Brown of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Tom Watson of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association. Each added their own perspectives in addressing water quality concerns, including some of the work to change the proposed route of Enbridge's Line 3 replacement oil pipeline. The route preferred by the company would forge a new path for oil pipelines in the state, diverging from its current line following Highway 2 to cut across Hubbard, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin, Carlton and Douglas counties.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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