Source water protection and working collaboratively, explained

Aerial photograph of the Mississippi River near St. Cloud, Minnesota.

When you turn on the tap for a glass of water, do you ever wonder where the water comes from? In Minnesota, most of our drinking water comes from groundwater, but some also comes from rivers, lakes, and streams. Water typically gets from source to tap either through private wells or public water suppliers like cities.

How land affects drinking water

Lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater aquifers are affected by what happens on the surrounding land. Our everyday activities can cause pollution to enter these water bodies causing contamination. A couple of examples of this include:

  • Fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals can be improperly applied to lawns or agricultural land. When it rains, those chemicals are carried with the rain through soil into groundwater or into lakes, rivers, and streams.
  • Chemicals from improper dumping and waste disposal seep into groundwater.

Contamination of water can cause illness. Cleaning or treating the water can be extremely costly. In cases where safe treatment is not possible, the source of drinking water can no longer be used.

Working together to protect source water

We are fortunate in Minnesota to have a robust network of organizations responsible for governing source water protection and drinking water. Drinking water safety is the responsibility of the Minnesota Department of Health, but other state and local agencies have responsibility and oversight over things like industrial pollution or pesticides and fertilizer from agriculture.

In 2019, Environmental Initiative, Citizens League, and the Minnesota Department of Health explored the needs and opportunities associated with promoting land uses and land use decisions that protect drinking water supplies. Listening sessions took place across the state with practitioners and the general public. Read the 2020 report on outcomes of this work →

Following these listening sessions, the partners recognized that land use strategies to protect drinking water sources would benefit from sustained collaboration across sectors and across geographies. As a result, Environmental Initiative convenes the Source Water Protection Collaborative – a statewide network of individuals with experience in source water protection, community outreach, engagement, agriculture, and public health to develop ways to promote land use that protects drinking water.

Emerging source water protection projects

Since 2020, the collaborative has developed a shared vision and purpose, agreed upon their structure and how they work together, as well as identified two projects to advance collectively.

In late 2022, Environmental Initiative published a call for artists as part of a pilot creative engagement project. The project goal is to use art and creativity to empower community members in a greater Minnesota rural community. The artist and the community will work together to better engage around protecting drinking water sources, increase local government capacity for water engagement, and build relationships and trust among stakeholders, including state and local government units and the local community. Environmental Initiative plans to announce the artists and community selected for the pilot in April.

To protect source water, lasting behavior changes in land and water management practices are needed. These changes will not happen without resilient networks and sustained engagement between and among state and local water resource professionals and between local units of government and the public. In some areas of the state, there are more limited resources, networks, and support for engagement. To address this, the Collaborative is partnering with the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center to develop their Watershed Engagement Hub, a clearinghouse of engagement resources and technical materials for natural resource professionals in greater Minnesota.

Want to know more? Explore the project web page to learn more about the Source Water Protection Collaborative or contact Britta Dornfeld with your questions.

Organizations involved the Source Water Protection Collaborative include: American Water Works Association, Board of Water and Soil Resources, City of Saint Paul, City of Saint Cloud, East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District, Farmers, Forever Green Partnership, Itasca Waters, Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, Local Public Health Association of Minnesota, Metropolitan Council, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Rural Water Association, Minnesota Water Well Association, Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, University of Minnesota, Waseca County Public Health, and Washington County Department of Public Health.

Support for this project is primarily provided by the Minnesota Department of Health.