Dennis Anderson
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Someday soon, water management as currently practiced in this state will be considered primitive. That such a realization isn’t already commonly held except among a small subset of hydrologists and a few other water techies isn’t surprising, given the vast amount of the wet stuff Minnesota is privileged to possess — for the time being.

The accompanying schematic illustrates an unregulated drainage practice occurring across much of the state that can be bad news for drinking water and soil health, as well as fish and wildlife habitat.

Called “pattern tiling,’’ the lines in the photo detail the positions of subsurface drain tiles designed to move water as quickly as possible from a farmland surface to the nearest ditch, stream or even lake.

Subsurface tiling has been around a long time, with early iterations made of concrete and clay. The difference today is the relative speed and ease with which plastic tiling can be positioned underneath a farm field, and the speed also with which it can rush water from a field’s surface to the nearest stream, ditch or lake.

When this happens, unless the water is held back by technologies that to date have gained too little traction among farmers, levels of the receiving waterway can rise significantly, sometimes by 5 feet or more. In many cases, these water-level jumps wipe out aquatic vegetation that fish and some wildlife species, among them ducks, need to survive.

This rush of water also carries with it various farmland chemicals that in many cases end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where they contribute to the huge “dead zone’’ at the mouth of the Mississippi.

If you think a practice like pattern tiling is regulated in Minnesota, given its impact on public waterways and other resources, you’d be wrong.

In fact, except for a single soil and water conservation district in western Minnesota, the amount of tile laid in the state isn’t even documented, and probably never will be, given the power that farmers and farm groups wield at the Capitol in St. Paul.

Yet farmers can be forgiven if they want sheet water, snowmelt and the detritus of the state’s increasing number of downpour “events’’ off their land as quickly as possible.

Dry fields not only make farmland easier to access, in many cases they boost corn and soybean yields. If, downstream, clean water and fish and wildlife habitat are lost in the process, well, that’s an expense logged in the public’s ledger, not the farmer’s.

The speed and breadth with which pattern tiling installation has been undertaken across much of farmland Minnesota is no secret to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and to the state Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). It’s no secret as well that, while the state on one hand is making sincere and in many cases effective attempts to clean up waterways and to slow down rain and other runoff, pattern tiling nonetheless continues unabated, and unrestricted.

Ditto for that matter the increasingly dire outcomes of water mismanagement in and around the Twin Cities, where storm-water retention ponds in many cases have replaced the shallow lakes and wetlands that once distilled rain water as it seeped into to the metro’s increasingly stressed aquifers.

All of which would seem to have political, if not regulatory, consequences, given that the actions of a minority of citizens (farmers/developers) so adversely affect resources belonging to a majority of Minnesotans.

Not so.

The reason is at least threefold:

• Most Minnesotans, like most people, zone out problems that are too complicated to understand easily, and/or don’t affect their lives in the immediate term.

• The farm lobby is powerful in this state, as are construction/development lobbies.

• State environment and conservation agencies and their leaders too often are unwilling and/or incapable of calling out these practices for the soul-sucking drags on land, water and wildlife that they are.

Inaction is costly

The last point warrants examination, because it is at the heart of the systemic problem that sidetracks natural resource management in Minnesota.

Specifically: Conservation here has no state-sponsored champions. This in turn creates a vacuum into which all manner of de facto state-sponsored bad things happen to Minnesota land and water.

The same vacuum contributes to unawareness and even ignorance among the majority of Minnesotans about the seriousness of the state’s natural resource problems.

Never was this vacuum more evident than at a DNR Roundtable a few years back when DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr struggled to explain to a questioner why he couldn’t, or was unwilling to, publicly promote conservation in the state — meaning, in effect, to be the Engergizer Bunny for land and water stewardship here.

Were he (or, for that matter, BWSR Executive Director John Jaschke) to do so, the conservation marketing possibilities would be endless, with reminders on billboards and other media to “not drain wetlands,’’ or to “leave roadsides unmowed until Aug. 1,’’ to “obey game and fish laws’’ or simply to “conserve water.’’

Landwehr’s a decent guy, and smart enough and certainly experienced enough to hold his job. But like other key DNR leaders, ultimately he’s more politician in his position than he is a point person for land and water protection.

So convoluted, in fact, is Minnesota’s conservation “system’’ that the very people who are paid to preach land and water stewardship in the state are the very ones least likely to do it, for fear they’ll run afoul of the big dogs in the Legislature or the statehouse.

Which is why neither Landwehr nor anyone ever in his job, under the current system, would want to be the face of Minnesota conservation. The career risks are too high.

Worse still about this “system’’ is that it too often encourages, attracts and retains leaders whose acquiescence to its “make no waves’’ culture comes almost naturally, and who, in the end, are blind even to its existence.

Minnesota might win a Super Bowl next year or the next. Other good things surely will occur as well. But unless this problem is fixed, the state’s natural resources are doomed.

And there’s no better time to fix it than now, during the run-up to the November election, when a new governor will be chosen.

Plain and simple, this state needs — as was recommended by a blue-ribbon panel recently — a Citizens Conservation Commission, perhaps of seven members, to be established in law, and whose members, appointed by the governor to rotating terms, would set conservation policy for the DNR, while also taking the lead in conservation promotion.

This won’t happen unless Minnesota’s conservation groups join together to get this idea in front of Minnesota gubernatorial candidates to determine who among them, if any, support it.

Otherwise, the fading in recent years of Minnesota duck, pheasant, muskrat, butterfly, bee and moose populations — and clean water — will be just the beginning.