We’ve heard the argument dozens of times; polluted water is bad. Bad for fish, bad for humans, and bad for everything in between.
The unfortunate truth is that bad water is everywhere. In our homes, we purify it. In our offices, we drink it from big, burpey coolers. Our cities actively fight to make sure that water is safe. But in rural Minnesota, the story has another chapter. The basic infrastructure, the pipes and the critical water treatment centers, is crumbling. It’s a problem that could make rural Minnesota a scary place to live.
This issue is going to take more resources than are readily available. In 2006, the EPA drew up a map showing areas of Minnesota considered “impaired waters.” More than 80% of impaired waters were in rural Minnesota. The report found contaminants like fecal coliform, mercury, and “exotic” chemicals.
In our cities, water treatment plants are constantly being updated as scientists identify new issues and ways to handle any potential issues. Larger communities are tested more often for contamination than rural areas. For example, bacterial contaminants are tested for monthly in urban areas but only quarterly in rural Minnesota.
Water is expected to do more in rural areas. As it enters the food chain in multiple ways, bad things can happen. We only have to remember back to this past summer’s severe lack of salsa or the spinach salmonella outbreak a few years back to know that rural areas are not where we should be lax with our water testing.
It’s not just regular testing that’s failing rural Minnesota. The pipes are going bad. Some communities don’t have pipes at all. In some cases, water has to be trucked into families’ homes and to their livestock and/or crops on an almost daily basis. In rural Minnesota, the water supply for an entire area can depend on a very small, privately held source. Some of those sources don’t have the financial capacity to follow every EPA recommendation.
The water infrastructure deficit goes beyond purification. Old pipes and treatment plants aren’t equipped to handle today’s problems. The average age of a rural water treatment facility in Minnesota is more than 50 years. When these older treatment facilities went online, there were roughly 1,000 different types of trace chemicals in our water supply. Today there are more than 5,000. A solid infrastructure is the first (and sometimes only) line of defense. Without it, rural Minnesotans will be unable to supply safe water to their crops and livestock the state’s economy depends on, and most importantly, themselves.
And that’s where the cavalry comes in. In rural Minnesota, the cavalry’s name is the Minnesota Rural Water Association. This small non-profit formed in 1978, helping communities of 10,000 or less with their water infrastructure issues. With their full time staff of 14, MRWA provides community outreach, training sessions, system development, and technical assistance. The funding they receive is part of a 48-state initiative to help smaller communities (10,000 or less), though the trainings are for anyone.
The key aim for MRWA is public health. They want to train waste water operators to deal with any public health issues that may arise. In fact, many small communities go to MRWA first, before alerting their municipality.
“If we can get their treatment processes as good as they possibly can, and give these municipalities the relief they need, we will figure out a way to do it. Small communities want to be the best they can possibly be. Sometimes they just need a little help. Their money is stretched so thin, thin to the nth degree,” said Ruth Hubbard, administrator of the Minnesota Rural Water Quality Association.
In a 2003 survey, the EPA found it would need to invest $276.8 billion in the national infrastructure over the next 20 years. In the years following the report, very little of the requested money has found its way to Minnesota. The report found that over half the money needed to go to communities of less than 50,000 people, with the majority going to communities with half that amount. The recommendations made to congress were just that, recommendations. And in the 5 years that have passed, not much has changed.
The Minnesota Rural Water Quality Association is the little engine that could and our first line of defense for protecting our rural water supply. That water supply is vital to the needs of all of Minnesotans. However MRWA doesn’t have needed the resources to protect rural areas. It’s up to state policymakers to invest and close the safety gap for Minnesota’s rural water infrastructure. It not only ensures better water and food, but provides the much needed jobs in our struggling economy.