Thursday, July 24, 2014

Drilling, dowsing, or divining for answers?

This morning I noted with interest that the Metro Council has released an Executive Summary of their Northeast Metro Water Supply Draft Report. The article in the newspaper made no mention of where water conservation might be part of a solution (although many of the comments did mention conservation). [Full disclosure: I used to work at the Metro Council on water quality issues. Before that I worked at Boston's regional planning agency on similar subjects.] I assumed the reporter might have skipped over that section of the release/report, so I checked the Executive Summary of the report. (Will the full report be made available to the public?) The Summary doesn't mention conservation but notes that:
"Concurrent studies in the northeast metro area include:
  • Characterizing Groundwater and Surface Water Interaction in Northeast Metro Area Lakes, MN – in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey (USGS); scheduled for completion in 2016. 
  • Feasibility Study of Joint Water Utility – Cities of Centerville, Circle Pines, Columbus, Hugo, Lexington, and Lino Lakes – in conjunction with Barr Engineering Company; scheduled for completion in fall 2014."
Those concurrent studies don't look like they'd be a promising source of information on water conservation efforts, nor did I find any reference to how the problem and proposed solutions might fit within the "Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework" commissioned by the Minnesota Legislature in 2009.

Mississippi River at Minneapolis
Photo by J. Harrington

Back in the days when I was a practicing planner, before I became a recovering planner, I was taught that it was helpful to the public to have a clear framing of the problem being solved or the issue being considered. That lesson was reinforced by a former Minnesota state senator, later DNR Commissioner, and, still later, president of Minnesota's Freshwater Society, Gene Merriam. He always impressed me when he would bring a legislative hearing or committee meeting back on track, often in the wee hours of the morning, by asking "what's the problem we're trying to solve here?"I see from the concurrent studies that the Metro Council's efforts are intended to address some sort of water problem, but I'm not sure what, specifically, it is. Are they focused on restoring White Bear Lakes historical water levels; building a metropolitan water supply nucleus; reducing dependence on groundwater supplies? I think the White Bear Lake water level issue could use more of Senator Merriam's kind of thinking, and corresponding documentation to share with us.

My disappointment and frustration continued and grew. After having returned to a review of the Sustainability Framework, and seeing that, in Appendix G, written directions and a link to the web site (see above) were provided so there would be access to the most current Water Conservation Best Practices, I followed the link and discovered there is no such document or listing available on the site. (I suppose it's possible that the missing conservation piece in the Metro Council's work is hindered by the missing "best practices" piece from the U?) So, we are now looking at a proposed potential expenditure of more than $600 million dollars to augment White Bear Lake either directly of by reducing aquifer withdrawals but have no clear identification of how we will know if whatever is proposed is a success and even less sense on whether it may be an appropriate expenditure of public funds. I was never a big fan of the Reagan Administration, but I did find worthwhile guidance to" Trust, but Verify" and "Just Say No." So far, I think both of those apply to the proposed options identified by the Metro Council for the White Bear Lake water level issue.

Mississippi River near Lake Pepin
Photo by J. Harrington

Let me be clear:
  • I think the Water Sustainability Framework is a very worthwhile document and should be used to assess the process and the outcomes for the Metro Council's work on water supply and management. I hope the missing piece on Water Conservation Best Practices that I've requested from UMN WRC staff show up soon.)

  • I'm not against some sort of regional approach to a water level solution for White Bear Lake, but I think it should occur within a framework of acting on the Water Sustainability top three essential actions (the Recommendation references refer to sections in the Framework). The stated goal is followed by the top three actions. The first is most relevant here:
"Protect and restore water quantity and quality through comprehensive, integrated, and informed management and policy:
  • Revise water appropriations permitting (Recommendation A.1.b), and model the state’s water balance (A.1.a)
  • Comply with water quality standards through implementation plans for reducing pollutants (B.1.a) and bring farmers to the table to be part of this solution (B.2.a)
  • Address future contaminants (C.1.a, C.2.a)"
I believe that the sustainable management of Minnesota's water has emerged (surfaced?) as too significant an issue to be piecemealed to poor solutions that may cost lots of money. I also think that we've invested enough in our studies of our water resources framework that we should rely on that framework to frame issues and evaluate solutions as we move ahead. Conservation is almost always sustainable. What part of the solution is it in the metro area and the rest of Minnesota? The water Frost seeks won't meet our needs.

Going for Water


Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963 

The well was dry beside the door,  
  And so we went with pail and can  
Across the fields behind the house  
  To seek the brook if still it ran;  
  
Not loth to have excuse to go,
  Because the autumn eve was fair  
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,  
  And by the brook our woods were there.  
  
We ran as if to meet the moon  
  That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,  
  Without the birds, without the breeze.  
  
But once within the wood, we paused  
  Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,  
Ready to run to hiding new
  With laughter when she found us soon.  
  
Each laid on other a staying hand  
  To listen ere we dared to look,  
And in the hush we joined to make  
  We heard, we knew we heard the brook. 
  
A note as from a single place,  
  A slender tinkling fall that made  
Now drops that floated on the pool  
  Like pearls, and now a silver blade.


********************************************
Thanks for visiting. Come again when you can.
Please be kind to each other while you can.