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10,000 Wasted Lakes

The Impact of Climate Change on Minnesota - and What We Can Do To Help

I thought we had more time. I came back to Minnesota after a year away at school and returned to an unrecognizable home. In the process of making “10,000 Wasted Lakes” to highlight the impact of climate change in Minnesota, I learned just how tangible the effects of climate change could become in such a short time.

In the summer, heat waves are nothing uncommon in Minnesota - but what has changed is how long they are staying. From the Department of Natural Resources, a heat wave of such length and severity had never happened so early in the season. Temperatures observed in the first half of June resembled that of mid July. The heat of June set numerous records for earliest in-season occurrences of high temperatures across four separate regions within the state.

These high heats have had continued negative impacts on water access this summer with Minnesota facing droughts. In June alone, 87% of the state faced severe drought conditions - meaning that the top soil is quite firm, crop yields are low, fire danger is high, and well levels are continuing to decrease. Given the state of the drought, Minnesota’s Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis issued restrictions on water use. Though these restrictions were limited to how frequently residents water their lawns, the DNR has stated that the drought progressed to a threshold to trigger a “warning phase” to prepare citizens in case the situation worsens.

Sun beats down on tree and grassy plains in Minnesota

Photo Credit: Arian Tomar

Wildfires on the west coast of Canada blew smoke 2,000 miles east, to the extent that air quality metrics measuring particulate concentrations hit record levels in regions across the state. Minnesota’s wildfire count had been on the decline from 2015-2019, but the continued drought poses a serious risk to increasing the severity of wildfires.

Accessible water maintains the health of nearly every ecosystem in the state. Even where water is plentiful, there are still some health concerns caused by climate change. In June, the Carver Lake beach located in Woodbury was shut down due to the presence of blue-green algae. The bacteria’s name is a bit of a misnomer, the “algae” is actually a harmful cyanobacteria that thrives in warm, nutrient rich waters. Periods of sustained high temperatures can encourage algal blooms that increase the concentration of the cyanobacteria. If the bacteria comes in contact with skin or is otherwise ingested, the toxins produced by the bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, eye irritation, headaches, and a sore throat. For non-humans such as pets or waterfowl, blue-green algae can even kill.

These worsening issues did not crop up overnight and they will not be addressed overnight either. One potential solution already in practice is protecting more land for DNR management.

Sun setting over the plains of Minnesota, with some evergreen trees along the ridgeline

Photo Credit: Arian Tomar

25% of land in Minnesota is protected and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. This land is protected in the forms of state parks, local reserves, and wildlife management areas. With the creation of public lands managed by the DNR, 4100 miles of trails have been created for use within state parks, recreation areas, and forests.

For the majority of Minnesotans, outdoor recreation is an important part of their lives. Per the DNR, state parks and recreation areas attract nearly ten million visitors annually, which is a testament to the beauty of our state. Minnesota is also fortunate enough to have six National Parks that garner interest from the entire United States.

From an environmental perspective, Minnesota’s protected land also makes sure that Minnesotans have access to clean water sources. 8% of the state’s area is covered with water, which is enough to provide drinking water to all residents. Additionally, the protection and management of 25% of the state’s land allows the DNR to uphold groundwater quality.

With this in mind, the protection of water sources and management by the DNR is of critical importance to ensure the benefits of the land continue to be available.

Sun gleaming through the trees of the Minnesota forest

Photo Credit: Arian Tomar

The DNR’s protection of land in Minnesota also has economic benefits for the state. Under protected status, the DNR can regulate the sale of wood and maintain control of how much of our forests will contribute to forestry on an annual basis. This management yielded $1.6 billion USD in 2016 alone. Protection of forests contributes significantly to Minnesota’s economy, as does the sale of mining leases.

The most profitable activity our protected land supports is recreation, where fishing, hunting, and wildlife contribute $3.7 billion USD annually. Much of this money gets funneled right back into conservation efforts to maintain the health and protection of our lands.

The DNR has issued the following statement on climate change: “We have a responsibility to adapt to climate change. We manage the impacts of climate change and protect Minnesota's natural resources, ensuring outdoor recreation opportunities for future generations. We take seriously our contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. We are investing in renewable energy, continuing our good stewardship of public lands, and limiting or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Through their continued efforts to preserve the balance of ecosystems across Minnesota, the DNR has the greatest understanding of the impacts of climate change and how to mitigate them. To support their efforts, most Minnesotans won’t have to change much of their own lifestyles. The majority of DNR funding in Minnesota comes from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses, so as long as those sales continue in normal amounts, the DNR will have the funds necessary to manage our lands. Furthermore, federal wildlife and fisheries grants in recent years have also made up a significant portion of the DNR budget.

Pollution rears its ugly head in the lakes of Minnesota

Photo Credit: Arian Tomar

Where citizens may be able to do more is on private land where the DNR is not able to access. In Woodbury, stormwater ponds are common features that collect and hold water, while also preventing debris from making their way downstream. These ponds act as buffers to maintain the health of larger bodies of water - but they also sustain life even if that was not the intention behind their creation. Frogs, turtles, birds, and small mammals rely on these ponds as an accessible water source, but when they are contaminated with trash and chemical runoff from over treated neon lawns, their health is going to suffer. When it comes to maintaining water quality for wildlife in residential environments, minimizing lawn treatments where possible would be a benefit to the animals that subsist in stormwater ponds.

Minnesotans can continue to recreate and support the DNR and do their part to fight climate change at home. Raising awareness of climate issues, using renewable energy, composting, generally consuming less, and rethinking use of fossil fuel reliant vehicles are all great places to start.


From Filmmaker and Guest Blog Author Arian Tomar: When I set out to make 10,000 Wasted Lakes, I never thought I would learn as much as I did through the process. Though I’ve outlined many initiatives both public and private that are making strides towards a healthier, more sustainable future for Minnesota, I think one thing that is just as important is to make sure that our climate stories get told.

People are not natural born activists, climate scientists, conservationists, or land managers, but we are all natural storytellers. To tell a climate story, there is so much research that goes into it, but nothing is more moving than the human experience. We are past the time where people can stand by as climate change decimates our home so I don’t care if you don’t think you don’t have a part in this fight. We are all part of one story now, the story of how we beat climate change, and we need your voice to be part of it.


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