Turning back the clock for clean water

Sherry White

by Sherry White

guest columnist

You can feel it in the air – it’s harvest season. Across the state, people are picking the fruits of their labor from their gardens and farms.

This reminds me of another type of harvesting I recently learned about at the 2014 Clean Water Summit at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Several of the speakers there discussed “stormwater harvesting” – catching rainwater and re-using it for things like watering lawns, irrigating fields and even flushing toilets. I found the topic exciting because it addresses two major problems at once.

First, we use purified drinking water for daily activities that don’t require drinking-ready water. I think just about everyone can agree this seems backwards.

It is extremely costly to treat water from lakes and rivers or to pump it from an underground aquifer just to spray it right back onto the ground or flush it down the toilet.

We are starting to see the effects of the aggressive pumping of our aquifers, like the falling water levels of White Bear Lake. According to the Department of Natural Resources, between 20 and 30 percent of the water we pump in the Twin Cities goes to watering lawns.

The second issue stormwater harvesting addresses is just as exciting for me. I serve as board president for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District where one of our main goals is to keep polluted stormwater from flowing into storm drains and directly into our lakes and streams.

The nasty things stormwater picks up on its way to a water body – dirt, fertilizer, road salt, pet waste, leaves, grass clippings and other debris – are the leading sources of pollution in our lakes and streams.

Every rain drop that is caught and re-used is one raindrop that doesn’t pollute our waterways.

With the right equipment, we can catch rainwater where it falls, avoid wasting drinking water on activities that don’t need it, protect nearby lakes and streams from polluted stormwater and save money on our water bills. All in one fell swoop!

It’s easy to start small. Rain barrels take water from your downspout and are great for watering your garden or parts of your lawn. They’re sold at home supply retailers and many are less than $100.

Bigger lots that generate more runoff can upgrade from rain barrels to cisterns, large cylinders that hold even more water. This water can be used to water lawns, playing fields and crops.

The St. Paul Saints will be using stormwater (with some minor treatment) to flush toilets at their new ballpark in downtown St. Paul.

With Minnesota’s abundance of lakes, rivers and wetlands, it’s easy to forget that water is a limited and precious resource. It doesn’t help that water is priced much cheaper than it is actually worth.

But, as many of the speakers at the Clean Water Summit opined, this will not be the case forever, as even the Land of 10,000 Lakes is seeing the effects of cavalier water use. Abundant water is a gift, and by harvesting and re-using rainwater it can be a gift that keeps on giving.


Sherry White is president of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District Board of Managers


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