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Key MN Resource Swept Up in Climate-Change Threat


Monday, August 30, 2021   

BEMIDJI, Minn. - Despite recent rain, the effects of Minnesota's dry summer remain visible, including shrinking levels in waterways. Those monitoring the impact of climate change say what's happening now creates concern for one of the state's most vital assets, the Mississippi River.

The Department of Natural Resources says in Minnesota, the river level is near historic lows that were recorded in 1976. The U.S. Geological Survey shows the north-central region still is a trouble spot.

Scientists have connected extreme weather events, such as prolonged droughts, to climate change. Freshwater Program Director for The Nature Conservancy of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota - Rich Biske - said the Mississippi is no stranger to the worst of what can happen.

"Too much water, not enough water, and you know, the droughts take place over a long period of time," said Biske. "But we've seen these intense rainfall events localized over the last decade."

That leads to concerns about more floods occurring. Biske said if the harmful effects of climate change aren't reversed, it's reasonable to expect more of these scenarios.

He added that keeping the Mississippi resilient is important because it's a large source of drinking water for the Twin Cities and other communities, while serving as habitat for certain species that filter out contaminants.

Jessica Hellmann, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, said weather patterns vary each year. But climate change is accelerating and expanding the scope of extreme events.

"The hottest years are hotter," said Hellmann, "and the wet years are quite wet, and the drought years are quite dry."

She said making it more challenging is that it's hard to predict when or where an extreme weather event will occur. That leaves natural resources like the Mississippi River more vulnerable.

Biske said that's why nature-based solutions, such as wetlands restoration, can help these resources become more resilient in the face of climate change.

"Increased diversity for species that live there that can tolerate drought conditions or extended wet conditions," said Biske, "and maintaining this biodiversity because it really does support the resilience of the natural communities."

Subsequently, he said this protects this source of water for populated communities around the region.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says recent rain events might help tributaries of the Mississippi fill some of it back up, but another dry spell could quickly bring levels back down.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Environment, Sustainable Agriculture, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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