I have been writing this column for about a year and a half, and I’m sometimes asked, “Why are you so negative and critical?"
My career has paralleled the modern environmental movement, which has included the recognition and evolution of the profession and practice of lake management. In the early phases, our institutions supported lake restoration through laws, funding and demonstrations. This was an exciting time. Our profession and our society demanded and expected improvements – and we got them.
Fast forward. Today, our lake management institutions are broken. As a result, we see few tangible results in terms of measurable water quality improvements, we have stopped supporting demonstration projects, we have become uncritical in evaluating our management programs and actions, and we are wasting money.
This institutional dysfunction is widespread, in some cases threatening public health. According to the North American Lake Management Society (November 2014 policy statement): “The prevalence of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in lakes and reservoirs increased from 10-20 percent in 1972 to 50-58 percent in 2007. HABs cause water quality impairments that endanger human and animal health, aquatic ecosystem biodiversity and sustainability, drinking source waters, and economies.”
Here are some high points from my columns that further demonstrate this (many of these examples focus on the Lake Minnetonka area because it coincides with the circulation of this newspaper, however there are similar examples around the country):
- Watershed management does not lead to improved quality for nutrient impaired lakes.
- We encourage management practices (rain gardens, buffers, shoreland improvements, etc.) that have not been fully evaluated for their pollution control efficacy and in most cases are insufficient.
- We often distract and mislead citizens by implying work they do will solve water quality problems. We reward efforts, not outcomes.
- There is no evidence that changing behavior through education is effective for improving water quality.
- We are fast and loose with math. In one case, rain gardens were claimed to remove 93 percent of pollution, but available research indicates practically zero removal.
- We are averse to using chemical controls, yet by most objective criteria they are safe for their intended use.
- Road salt is seriously impacting our lakes, yet we do not want to confront the tradeoff between dry roads and harming water (using less salt only means polluting more slowly).
- We have no objective measures of the efficacy of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) prevention methods.
- AIS early detection and rapid response is a concept that is not practically workable.
- AIS control research is critical, yet we have only funded enough (in Minnesota) to get started and we are inappropriately expecting quick results from a necessarily slow, methodical process.
- At $100 million per year, we don’t expect to make a dent in the state’s water quality problems for several decades – probably much more.
These highlights, distilled here, are more fully described in the original columns and supported by public data and scientific literature.
So, yes, I am critical. We can do better.
I’ll re-focus my upcoming columns on ways we can do better. In some cases, it will mean confronting unpleasant or socially challenging trade-offs, like quarantines for AIS infestations, no road salt or large-scale conversions of agricultural or urban lands to prairies or forests. In some cases, it will mean treating the symptoms of pollution because it is impractical or infeasible to treat the underlying causes. In some cases, it may mean having patience.
We can have cleaner lakes by managing them using well-tested tools and techniques, often more quickly and for less cost.
When I state a problem, I believe I should also find an acceptable and helpful remedy.