COVID-19 has had an abrupt and unprecedented impact on our health, lives and economy. And it brings with it great uncertainty.

As I have throughout my life, I’ve found the Mississippi River and the lands and waters that are connected to it to be incredibly helpful for my mental and physical health. I also know they are essential to our quality of life and livelihood in Minnesota.

Conserving our lands, waters and natural resources is not something that should be considered optional. Doing so is in fact core to our identity and our economy.

Protecting and restoring natural areas can help keep our communities healthy and safe through cleaner air and water and reduced flooding while also reducing costs and pressure on public infrastructure.

I often go to Brainerd Rotary Riverside Park to walk and observe wildlife. Like many people my age, I’m particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, but I find solitude and solace in nature. The park has more than a mile of river frontage and over two miles of trails. Like much of the Mississippi River’s headwaters area, it’s an absolute treasure, but one that I feel many people overlook.

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If you have an interest in birding there are not many places better than the Mississippi River flyway, which is a vital migration corridor for nearly half of North America’s bird species and about 40 percent of its ducks and other waterfowl. The Mississippi River and its headwaters area also supports more than 350 species of mammals, birds and other wildlife, including most of the endangered, threatened and rare species listed in Minnesota.

I’m not an angler but I know that our local guides say that the Mississippi right here in Brainerd offers exceptional fishing. And Minnesotans’ already deep interest in fishing is growing. The sale of fishing licenses is up more than 41% over last year. Prior to COVID-19, fishing generated billions of dollars in direct expenditures and hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local taxes annually while supporting 43,000 jobs. So, our waters are enormously popular and profitable for Minnesotans.

The Mississippi River and its headwaters area provide drinking water for more than 44% of the state’s population. About 1.2 million people in the state get their drinking water from the Mississippi. An additional 1.3 million Minnesotans get their drinking water from groundwater wells in the region including residents in Baxter and Brainerd.

We rely on our waters, so we should not take them for granted. American Rivers included the Upper Mississippi on its Top 10 list of the most endangered rivers in the United States. And more than 56% of our waters in Minnesota, including stretches of the Mississippi River, are now considered impaired.

A report from Ecolab and The Nature Conservancy shows that protecting and restoring critical land in the Mississippi River’s headwaters area would provide about $500 million in benefits including avoided water treatment costs, retained property value, taxes and jobs and avoided public health costs due to cleaner air and water.

If we fail to act, it would cost an estimated $2.7 billion to clean up the waters in the Mississippi River system, including tributaries and our groundwater, if they become so polluted they are unsafe for swimming or eating fish or are undrinkable without additional water treatment. Restoring lakes in the river’s headwaters area could cost an additional $4 billion.

Clean water is important for our health and the economy. By investing in conservation now, we will give Minnesota’s waters (and the jobs that go along with them) a much-needed boost at a time when it matters most.

I would encourage Sen. Carrie Ruud, Rep. Josh Heintzeman and the rest of the Minnesota Legislature to include land and water conservation in the upcoming bonding bill. Programs that help keep our water clean by protecting and restoring working forests and grasslands are exceptional investments that provide both immediate and enduring returns.

John Forrest, long-time resident and civic leader in Brainerd, is a supporter of The Nature Conservancy and an advocate of protecting water quality for present and future generations.