ELY, Minn. - Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton was on the edge of the some of the state's most pristine waters on Tuesday, Sept. 12, for one of 10 Water Quality Town Hall meetings held across the state in recent weeks.
Across much of Minnesota, the discussion has been about lakes and rivers impaired by excess phosphorus and nitrogen, too much road salt, invasive species, declining water tables due to overuse and the need for buffer strips to keep farm runoff out of rivers.
The meetings are part of Dayton's effort to improve water quality by 25 percent by 2025 across the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where in some southern regions, three-fourths of the waters are unsafe for fishing, drinking or swimming.
"It's going to take decades" to recover southern Minnesota's most degraded waters, Dayton said.
But on the edge of the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and some of the least human-impacted waters in the state, Dayton heard a different story. The locals are understandably more concerned with keeping their clean lakes the way they are rather than solving any pressing problem.
"This area of the state has really good water quality. You're in a better situation than most," Dayton said. "But all the more reason to focus on prevention and protection."
Dayton brought along state, regional and local environmental and natural-resource-agency leaders and said he hopes the 10 meetings help spur a statewide discussion that leads to collective action by all state residents.
State officials say Minnesotans have turned out well for the meetings, with 200-300 at each.
About 300 people packed into the Grand Ely Lodge on the shore of Shagawa Lake, some clearly expecting a public debate on mining versus environmental regulation. Several people wore the now-familiar "We Support Mining" T-shirts and buttons, an obvious strike at Dayton who opposes the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine just southeast of Ely along the Kawishiwi River. Supporters say the mine could bring hundreds of high-paying jobs to the region. But critics of the mine, including Dayton, say the potential pollution threat to the region's waters - including lakes in the BWCAW - is not worth the risk.
Those looking for a debate on mining were likely disappointed. After brief speeches by Dayton and a few others, the meeting broke up into small group discussions that focused on developing two or three goals on how to improve and protect Northeastern Minnesota water quality.
Each table discussed ideas that included pursuing more adaptable water protection regulations, not over-regulating, increasing state funding for municipal sewage plants, mandatory well testing for pollutants and additional public education on the importance of good septic systems.
"People were very respectful," Dayon said as he left the meeting, saying the 25 by 25 effort is much larger than any single issue.
"I can't think of a place in the state where water is more a part of the culture than it is here," said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, noting the area isn't without problems, such as tainted fish from airborne mercury that comes from as far away as China.
Verne Matson of Babbitt sat next to Dayton to bend the governor's ear on a potential pollution cleanup technology.
"I wanted to tell him about a guy I know in Babbitt who has something that can clean up these mine pits and take out things like algae. I just sort of moved in when the chair opened so I could tell him about it," Matson said
Dan Schutte, district manager of the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, encouraged people to protect what they have and not take clean water for granted. He especially urged people to maintain healthy, native vegetation near waterways, saying denuded shoreline is among the most pressing reasons waters become degraded.
Schutte also urged forest management that focuses on protecting watersheds, saying active forest management is needed to maintain nature's filter system. He noted invasive buckthorn has moved to within a few miles of the BWCAW, threatening the forest ecosystem of the lake-studded wilderness and the water quality of the wilderness lakes.
"What you see in the water is a direct reflection of what's going on on the land," Schutte said.
Dayton brings his state waters discussion to Bemidji State University American Indian Resource Center on Wednesday night, Sept. 13, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., the only other northern Minnesota location.