Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
An abundance of clean, fresh water seems like a sure thing, at least in a state with as much of it as Minnesota has. But 50 years from now, in 2072, Minnesota might be a very different place.
On our good days, we imagine an enlightened society with free health care for all, a fusion-based power system and climate change scenarios that don't threaten the planet. On our bad days, it's more of a dystopian hellscape.
And a primary feature that distinguishes those visions from each other is the water supply. In our imagined utopia, clean water is plentiful. In the hellscape, it's rarer and more precious than oil.
Half a century may seem like a long time, but any baby boomer can tell you it's not. Decisions made today can have a profound impact, and soon. It is not too early — and let's hope it's not too late — to decide to safeguard our water supply for the next half-century.
A measure under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature would finance a study of Minnesota's water resources, both above and below ground, to be conducted by the Water Council, a consortium at the University of Minnesota. The legislation calls upon the council to assess the state of water in every part of Minnesota and develop a plan "to ensure that Minnesota has an abundant supply of clean water for the next 50 years."
Fifty years doesn't seem very long when you consider that the threats to Minnesota's waters include something called "forever chemicals."
Also known as polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, those chemicals have been identified in bodies of water all across the state. The word "forever" denotes tenacity: The Environmental Protection Agency says the substances are long-lasting and break down "very slowly" over time. They have been linked to several health risks, including cancer.
Agricultural runoff may not have the longevity of PFAS, but it is widespread and harmful. Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen wash downstream and create dead zones, as well as toxic algae blooms. Another toxic substance, mercury, arrives in the wind, either landing in or washing into waterways.
These are just a few of the substances currently inflicting harm on Minnesota's water resources — including Lake Superior.
And, ominously, more threats are waiting in the wings. It would be comforting to think that, 50 years from now, the names Twin Metals and Antofagasta will be nothing more than answers to questions in a particularly wonkish Minnesota trivia contest. Yet the proposal for copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has shown stubborn longevity.
At the moment, the proposed Twin Metals mining operation is held at bay by a Biden administration decision to revoke its mineral leases. But the Chilean owner, Antofagasta, had been stymied before, only to be brought back into play by the Trump administration. It is evident that, without decisive action by Congress, a presidential election could turn the tables once again.
The 50-year plan called for in the legislation proposed by DFL Rep. Kelly Morrison and DFL Sen. Jennifer McEwen — and supported by former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson and others — calls for a $650,000 appropriation for the Water Council to "identify opportunities for Minnesota to act proactively to ensure that Minnesota has an adequate supply of clean water" for the next half-century.
A water crisis is bearing down on the United States, especially in the West and Southwest. Minnesota is fortunate to be better able than most states to withstand the crisis. But it is by no means free of threats from pollution, drought and misuse. The water plan offers the state an opportunity to take inventory of its water resources and develop strategies to protect them.
It's a sensible precaution — and just how sensible is likely to become clearer with each passing year.