Protecting Rural Waters

Cows in a lot with a barn behind themRural water issues are complex. Climate change, infrastructure, land use, and land use changes all impact water quantity and quality. If rural lands are not managed properly, rural land uses and agricultural practices can negatively impact waterbodies and drinking water sources. 

Rural areas are important for natural resource protection and groundwater recharge for drinking water wells. Protecting our rural lands and understanding rural water concerns are crucial for achieving sustainable water resources within the metro region.

Rural areas are critical to region’s economy, quality of life

Our region benefits from a diversity of natural resources, communities, land uses, and economies. Rural and agricultural areas account for about half of the region’s land but represent a much smaller proportion of the population.

As the region grows and climate shifts in the coming decades, rural areas are likely to experience significant change. Long-term development, land use change, and limited funding to address aging infrastructure pose substantial threats to water resources and ecosystems in rural and downstream areas.

In addition, public policy and industry practice have produced an unequal landscape across rural lands, causing an unequal burden on low income residents, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. Environmental justice and equity concerns in the metro region regarding rural lands include access to land, access to financing for land, and public investment.

Central concerns for protecting rural water

  • Climate change. Flooding can endanger private wells. Prolonged drought can impact community and private water supply systems. Changing growing seasons, invasive species, floods, and droughts all threaten the productivity of agricultural fields.
  • Population growth and land use change. Without careful planning and best management practices, growth can increase pollution, modify water infiltration and movement, and reduce groundwater recharge.
  • Water quality. Wetland loss, agricultural soil loss, agricultural drainage, nutrient issues, and pesticides are all threats to water quality in rural areas.
  • Wastewater. Rural communities face significant obstacles in maintaining wastewater services due to limited financial resources and a challenging population distribution.
  • Water supply. Because of lower population, rural water rates are among the highest in the region. Emergency backup systems are fewer than in more urbanized areas.

Addressing rural water concerns is key to water sustainability

Sustainable and plentiful high-quality water resources provide a firm foundation for future economic growth, livability, and high quality of life in our region. Protecting our rural lands and understanding rural water concerns are crucial for achieving sustainable water resources within the metro region.

Long-term development, land use change, and limited funding to address aging infrastructure pose substantial threats to water resources and ecosystems in rural and downstream areas. To plan for a sustainable and vibrant future, the Met Council must establish adaptive, forward-looking policies that support rural livelihoods, protect and enrich our region’s waters, and promote equitable outcomes for current and future generations.

Proposed policy recommendation rural wastewater

It is recommended, both here and in the wastewater white paper, that we modify the current wastewater policy as suggested in bold below:

“The Met Council will acquire wastewater treatment plants owned by Rural Centers, based upon their request through the comprehensive plan and comprehensive sewer plan processes, if the acquisition provides cost-effective service, accommodates assigned growth, protects public health and wellbeing, and the facility currently meets or with improvement can meet environmental and regulatory requirements, after soliciting customer input and conducting a public hearing on the request.”

Proposed actions

  • Accept the wastewater service request only when the following criteria are met:
    • The community accepts the Met Council’s growth forecasts, as well as preserves at least 1,000 developed or developable acres for growth through the land use planning authority of the county or adjacent township(s) or through an orderly annexation agreement or similar mechanism to provide for staged, orderly growth in the surrounding area.
    • The community has a water supply plan approved by the Department of Natural Resources.
    • The community has a local surface water plan approved by its local watershed organization.
    • The community has adequate transportation access.
    • The community lies within the Long-Term Wastewater Service Area or other regional benefits would result, such as economic development unique to the rural area or preservation of high-value water resources.
    • There are feasible and economical options for siting and permitting an expanded wastewater treatment plant or for extending interceptor service.
    • The Met Council has sought customer input, has conducted appropriate financial analysis, and has conducted a public hearing on the community’s wastewater service request.
  • Require that, if the most economical and beneficial wastewater service option is to construct a regional interceptor to serve the community, the Met Council will not acquire the community’s wastewater treatment plant, and the community will be responsible for decommissioning its treatment plant.
  • Not allow connections to the regional wastewater system outside the sewered rural community. The Met Council may construct capacity to serve the long-term needs of the rural and agricultural planning areas, but will not provide service until the Met Council, in consultation with the appropriate community, designates the area as a developing community and the community amends its comprehensive plan accordingly.
  • Preserve areas outside the Long-Term Wastewater Service Area for agricultural and rural uses while protecting significant natural resources, supporting groundwater recharge, protecting source water quality, and allowing limited unsewered development.
Additional recommendations to implement this policy, resulting from an analysis of the Crucial Concerns outlined in our Rural Concerns white paper and from the Wastewater Planning and Service Considerations white paper include:
  • The Met Council will consider providing a higher level of service for liquid waste haulers by investigating, adding, and maintaining additional liquid waste receiving sites.
  • The Met Council will partner with other state agencies to discuss subsurface sewage treatment system disposal facilities and rural access to disposal sites. Proposed policy recommendation on environmental justice and water equity
  • We will need to develop new policy to encapsulate our strategies and actions toward water equity and environmental justice within the region. Met Council staff will work with Council members to develop the language in 2023. Below are the recommended actions from our rural concerns work.

Proposed actions

  • The Met Council will investigate ways to include environmental justice frameworks into its decision-making processes, including expansion of the wastewater system, and the Met Council’s infrastructure policy should consider environmental justice and racial equity principles at a regional level.
  • Met Council staff will partner and support metro region organizations with a water equity focus.
  • The Met Council will convene regional discussions about water equity and environmental justice concerns.
  • Environmental Services will integrate equity metrics into our programs, projects, and services. Environmental Services will complete an equity analysis of where our capital program dollars are being spent.
  • The Met Council will work toward securing funds to provide grants promoting water equity and to address identified environmental injustices.

Proposed rural water quality policy recommendation

The Met Council will support, collaborate, and partner on water quality efforts in rural areas.

Proposed actions

  • Investigate how to create better agricultural partnerships with soil and water conservation districts to limit the impacts of land management decisions on our drinking water supply and wastewater permits.
  • The Met Council will continue to support the Wetland Conservation Act and wetland preservation, enhancement, and restoration.
  • When drainage systems are upgraded, the Met Council will support incorporation of practices to reduce peak flows and nutrient loading.
  • The Met Council will support the agriculture certification program and soil health/regenerative agriculture in rural areas through partnerships with metro soil and water conservation districts.
  • The Met Council supports preservation of regionally significant ecological areas as rural areas develop through educational outreach to local governments and plan review.
  • The Met Council will promote the use of green infrastructure best management practices for new development and redevelopment through educational outreach to local governments and plan review.
  • The Met Council will continue to partner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to monitor pesticides.
  • Water quality credit trading is a potential strategy for meeting National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit requirements but will require strong policies and careful implementation to provide regulatory certainty. The Met Council will develop a water quality credit trading policy and explore potential agreements that conform with it.

Proposed rural water supply policy recommendation

The Met Council will support adaptation and mitigation efforts of rural water systems and rural water users as the impacts of climate change become more substantial and the region continues to grow.

Proposed actions

  • The Met Council will convene rural water suppliers, private well users, and partner agencies to discuss and set planning priorities for rural areas around aging infrastructure, system resiliency, service population growth, and potential impacts to private users.
  • The Met Council will research long-term water availability in rural areas of the metro region.
  • The Met Council will support rural water systems by advocating for funding to improve or build new water supply infrastructure as needed.
  • The Met Council will partner with the state to help rural communities collaborate around emergency planning and service reliability by identifying community needs and potential service or funding gaps.
  • The Met Council will (where applicable) encourage growing communities planning on building new water supply systems to transition existing interconnections from supply to emergency use.
  • The Met Council will partner with local and regional experts to identify needs and develop tools that help to improve public understanding around contamination, well testing and maintenance, source water protection, and publicly available resources.
  • The Met Council will support efforts to estimate the pumping volume and impacts of private wells in rural areas and the broader metro region.
  • The Met Council will support funding or programs proposed by other state agencies to fund and enhance monitoring in the metro region and in significant source water areas that serve the metro region.
  • The Met Council will support the evaluation of how growth and development, rural land uses, and overall land use change impact and influence water supplies and local water needs.

Provide your feedback

Provide your feedback

The survey linked below offers the opportunity to provide feedback about the ideas and recommendations generated in the paper and about the topic as a whole. Hearing feedback from the region will help us create a Water Resources Policy Plan that is more reflective of the values held by our residents and water professionals.

Rural Water Issues Research Paper Survey