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Minnesota Water Pollution on the Rise, New Approach Needed

October 4, 2009

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is in the midst of convening a number of public meetings to release its new draft 2010 TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) list.  The new list includes 1,774 impairments in 647 lakes and 388 rivers with one or more reaches listed for one or more pollutants.  The 2008 list had 1,475 impairments in 510 lakes and 338 rivers, a 20 percent increase in just a two-year period.  The MPCA has data available on individual water impairments dating back to 1998.  The new TMDL draft list brings Minnesota’ water impairments to a staggering 3049!  This is the accumulation of impairments over the years coupled with the reality that very few impaired waters make it off of the list.  This new information tells us an old message; our waters are getting polluted faster than restoration efforts can clean them up.  We don’t need this new data to tell us that, but it certainly should remove all doubt for any of those who doubted the pollution reality in which we’ve put ourselves.  To see the 2010 Draft TMDL List, the complete inventory of impaired waters, and a map of impaired waters go to the MCPA TMDL website: 

Falling Behind on a Vicious Cycle
For the sake of fairness we must acknowledge that 29 water bodies were de-listed, meaning they once exceeded pollution standards but have since become healthy enough to no longer receive the “polluted” descriptor.  At this rate, unfortunately, we are no where near keeping up with pollution.  While 29 water bodies were moved from “polluted” classification to “clean” status, another 299 new impairments moved “clean” bodies of water to “polluted” status.  For every polluted body that gets cleaned, another ten take its place in the polluted column.  For the less-mathematically inclined, that means a net increase of 270 polluted lakes or river segments since 2008.

This is no way to clean up Minnesota’s polluted lakes and rivers.  It’s not even a way to keep our clean lakes and rivers from ending up polluted.  As much money and effort we put toward this issue we are falling behind fast.  MPR reported last week the USDA plans to spend $80 million per year to improve water quality in the Mississippi River Basin, and that is just one Federal agency.  Consider the money spent by DNR, Fish and Wildlife, other agencies of the USDA, non-profit efforts such as the Nature Conservancy, and then add to it state money from the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources as well as the new Clean Water Legacy money and one would stagger.  This is not to criticize the current efforts or denigrate in any way the need to work on water quality.  Instead, let this be a statement of larger problems.  We need to spend more money to ensure clean and healthy waters, we need to spend that money in a new way to getter better results, or a combination of the two; preferably the path that provides the best results with the lowest cost.

Valuing Clean Water and a Healthy Environment
Current efforts are good, but are not structured to effectively change the system.  Public and non-profit efforts at restoration merely place costs on everyone for the actions of some.  Economists call that an externality; a cost placed upon society resulting from a market transaction in which the transaction participants do not bare that cost themselves.  As long as the current pricing system is in place, externalities, and the need for public and non-profit water restoration efforts, will remain.  Economists will further explain that societies may in fact correct externalities through market-based solutions, and not simply address the resulting problem through restoration. 

In fact, if we seek to truly and effectively protect the Minnesota environment from pollution, we must take a market-based approach.  Sure, we could redouble our efforts and funding at restoration, but doing so would only get so far.  Moreover, society would incur considerable costs along the way.  Market-based solutions have the potential to internalize the pollution externality that has led to a build up of environmental costs.  First, we need clear and dependable information regarding pollution; who does it, how much occurs but also how much are naturally clean waters and healthy environments worth.  The MCPA data on TMDLs is a great step toward more and better information.  But we need further information on the impacts this pollution has on the environment and humans.  As the information currently exists, we do not know the direct relationship between goods consumed and the pollution that consumption creates.  Second, we need pricing mechanisms put in place that reflect the full value (or cost) of actions, both intended and unintended.  We do not have a clear monetary value placed on clean water and healthy environments, so therefore it essentially gets undervalued.  Imagine how pollution would change if we learned a clean lake had a value of say $25 per acre per year to those nearby or downstream of said lake and a value of $15 per acre per year for others not directly benefiting.  Third, we need easy transaction systems in place so people may easily purchase desired values.  We do not have an easy way for a valued clean environment to get considered in market transactions.  Many people out there do in fact value clean air and water and have begun to put a personal price on such values.  The organic products market has exploded in the last ten years and promises to continue to grow.  But that is just one market out of hundreds and this market has the advantage of market transaction participants bearing the cost (and benefit) or organic food production.  The growing demand for recycled paper is perhaps a better metaphor.  Consumers see no physical or economic benefit from purchasing recycled paper, but many value it for its environmental benefits.

Minnesota Project Leading the Way
Over the coming months the Minnesota Project will be laying out innovative information and solutions to this long-standing pollution problem.  Through this work, subsequent policy developments and demonstration projects we can begin to lay the groundwork for a marketplace system that truly allows for a full valuation of healthy ecosystems instead of a system that fails to punish bad behavior and burdens society with the costs.

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