Protecting water quality

Water-Quality_350A.jpgThe Twin Cities metro region is shaped by the water that moves through it. Rivers mark our boundaries and allow goods to move. Lakes give us solace, enjoyment, and memories. Deep groundwater aquifers provide many residents with clean, abundant drinking water.

But these resources are threatened by pollutant-loaded runoff, current and emerging contaminants, and the uncertainties of climate change. Currently, the region has 438 river and stream sections and lakes that fail to meet state water quality standards. Many of these waters have more than one of these harmful impacts; without strong action, these impacts will get worse.

A threat to public health, environment, and our economy

Water pollution and its costs impact public health, ecosystem function, and regional economic competitiveness.

Under state law, the Metropolitan Council operates the regional wastewater treatment system and makes plans for sustainable water resources. We work closely with many partners to fulfill our responsibilities. Many points of view are needed to address the increasing complexity of water quality challenges.

Central concerns for protecting water quality

  • A growing population: 3.2 million people today, more than 4 million by 2050
  • Climate change, which is bringing a warmer and wetter climate
  • Contaminants of concern
    • Chloride – A permanent pollutant that impacts both groundwater and surface water
    • Nutrients – Substances such as fertilizers that cause algae to grow out of control and become toxic, lowering oxygen levels in the water available to living organisms, and causing fish kills
    • PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – A group of persistent synthetic chemicals that contaminate water and build up in tissues of fish, wildlife, and people, which can cause health concerns
    • Volatile organic contaminants (VOCs) – Many VOCs are human-made chemicals that are used and produced in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants.

Strong policies, more collaboration

Strong regional water policies are needed to restore and protect the quality of our waters. Recognizing the connections between groundwater, lakes, streams, and rivers, wastewater, and stormwater is essential. So, too, are stronger and more frequent collaborations among all people and organizations who care about our region’s water.

To address the region’s water quality concerns successfully, our region must recognize the connections between groundwater, lakes, streams, and rivers, wastewater, and stormwater. We need strong collaborations among with cities and townships, watershed organizations, state and federal agencies, and other water practitioners to undo past harms and safeguard our water and water infrastructure now and into the future.

We also know that not all metro area residents are impacted by water quality concerns equally. The Metropolitan Council has a role in lessening the burdens on vulnerable, marginalized, and underinvested communities within the region.

One of the Met Council’s key roles in protecting water quality is through long-range planning and policymaking. Here we offer areas of action for consideration to address our region’s complex water quality challenges.

Environmental justice and water equity

We will need to develop a new policy to encapsulate our strategies and actions towards water equity and environmental justice within the region. Met Council staff will work with Met Council policymakers to develop the language in 2023. Below are the recommended actions from our paper on water quality.  

  • Met Council staff will convene and listen to community members who have water equity and environmental justice concerns or experiences. We will work together to try to alleviate imbalances that cause the injustices and strengthen our relationship and build trust. 
  • Met Council staff will partner and support metro area 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, including:
    • Target monitoring work to Priority Waters with high scores in the equity category (this data is already available). 
    • Investigate options for offering financial incentives to Citizen Assisted Monitoring Program sponsors to recruit volunteers from disadvantaged communities. 
    • Complete an equity analysis of where our capital program dollars are being spent. 
    • Work with partners in addressing PFAS in drinking water, especially in areas with disadvantaged communities. 
  • Environmental Services will partner with other Met Council divisions on equity efforts that overlap regional systems. Potential projects to explore:
    • Regional parks: Pilot projects involving monitoring in waters in certain parks, and creating signage about blue green algae and information about safe swimming. 
    • Transit: Pilot projects that increase access to Regional Priority Waters and create signage about these waters. 
    • Community development and housing: Pilot projects that promote low-flow fixtures and green infrastructure in disadvantaged communities without causing housing affordability concerns and environmental gentrification.  
  • The Met Council will work towards securing funds to provide grants promoting water equity and to address identified environmental injustices. 


Environmental Services may need to revisit our finance policy to incorporate funding sources to provide for work not covered by, or to augment, the regional sewer fees. Met Council staff will work with Met Council members to develop the language in 2023.

Watershed approach

We have an existing watershed approach policy. Below are the recommended actions which could be added to the policy. 

  • Met Council staff will adopt an adaptive management approach (plan-do-study-check) to ensure our water policies are prioritized, targeted, measurable, and effective at improving the region’s water quality.
  • Met Council staff will lead regional One Water task forces to help us best explore and address regionally significant contaminants of emerging concern. These groups could establish a process to track emerging contaminants, assess their likely threat to waters in our region, or develop a decision-tree of when to initiate monitoring and assessments of these contaminants and do follow up actions.
    • Include watershed organization and city/township staff on the task force to provide the local perspective.
    • Establish current understanding and provide recommendations for next steps.
    • Create regional outreach and education to share with local units of government to modify behaviors towards pollutant generation, as appropriate.
    • Partner with local entities to reduce the prevalence of contaminants (alternative chemicals, legislative action, bans, etc.)
    • Sponsor or promote activities or events (prescription drop-off locations, etc.)
  • Through the review process for comprehensive plans, local water plans, and watershed management plans, Met Council staff will make water resources management a critical part of land use decisions and planning protocols and procedures. This will ensure these plans are making progress toward achieving state and regional goals for protection and restoration of water resources.
    • Encourage pollution prevention/protection actions for Priority Waters.
    • Promote stormwater best practices - including the guidance of MDH and MPCA about limiting infiltration in wellhead protection areas.
    • Encourage the utilization of retrofit stormwater management in urban public areas to reduce volume.
    • Protect habitat and open spaces.
  • The Met Council will partner with universities and other research organizations to participate in surface, drinking, and wastewater contamination research in the region’s/Council’s interest:
  • Contaminants of concern (PFAS, nutrients, chloride, emerging contaminants, etc.).
  • Stormwater ponds as a source of phosphorus - partner with communities to develop mitigation strategies for affected ponds.
  • The Met Council will support reductions of pollutant sources (chlorides, PFAS, etc.) to metro water, including as appropriate through legislative solutions.
  • The Met Council will work towards securing funds to offer targeted grants promoting regional water quality:
    • Protection of Priority Waters and Critical Watersheds
    • Urban stormwater management
    • Agricultural best management practices
    • Chloride best management practices for residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial purposes
    • Improved water softener efficiency grants
  • Met Council staff will create resources and tools to promote best land use practices for communities and watersheds across the metro. Such as:
    • Encourage bee-lawns and other no-mow, anti-erosion, low fertilizer lawn alternatives.
    • Connect developers and watershed organizations early in the development process to plan proactively around water.
    • Proactively create regional stormwater treatment and storage up front for phased redevelopment plans (like Allianz field).
    • Encourage communities to have stormwater requirements for redevelopment of single-family properties (some communities exempt single- family redevelopment from doing any stormwater management).
    • Lead and partner on regional climate scenario modeling and interpretation. 
    • On a recurring schedule, do climate assessments with our lake, river, stream data, such as found on the Climate Change and Minnesota's Surface Waters web page.
    • Do landscape assessments to identify areas prone to climate risk (highly erodible soils, steep slopes, etc.) 
    • Partner and support research, monitoring, and assessment of HABs within metro area waters. 


We have an existing policy regarding how Environmental Services makes regional investments. Below are the recommended actions that could be added to the policy. 

  • The Met Council will partner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to evaluate the potential for point- and nonpoint-source nutrient trading to reduce watershed nutrient loading. 
  • The Met Council will support or invest in innovative urban planning research and design to encourage growth without placing additional stress on water resources. 
    • Nature-based stormwater infrastructure 
    • Low-road-salt development design - new or redevelopment approaches that naturally need less salt for winter maintenance 
    • Porous or solar pavements 
    • Narrower streets 
  • The Met Council will investigate the regional need and economic viability to accept salty stormwater discharges to our wastewater collection and treatment system allowing for the reversal of chloride-impaired lakes from the region.  Sustainable water supplies
  • We have an existing policy regarding sustainable water supplies. Below are the recommended actions that could be added to the policy.
  • Where appropriate, the Met Council will encourage interconnection of water supply systems where economies of scale can reduce the per capita cost of treatment for contamination (PFAS, manganese, VOCs) in potable water. 
  • The Met Council will work with the Minnesota Department of Health to understand future changes to health-based guidance for drinking water contamination concerns. 
  • The Met Council will work with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to further knowledge on the movement of existing groundwater contamination plumes in the metro area. 
  • The Met Council will support hydrogeologic studies to further knowledge on the levels of contaminants present in water supply aquifers. 
  • Met Council staff will incorporate new drinking water treatment best practices into future updates of the Metro Area Water Supply Plan. 
  • The Met Council will share information with subregional water supply work groups. 

Assessing and protecting regional water resources

We have an existing policy regarding the assessment and protection of regional water resources. Below are the recommended actions which could be added to the policy. 

  • Council staff will work with local, state, and federal water organizations to ensure the monitoring of and data sharing for all Priority Waters for nutrients, chlorides, and other contaminants of concern at a frequency to allow assessment by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency against water quality standards. 
  • As new contaminant threats emerge, Met Council staff will work with local, state, and federal water organizations to complete a metro-wide synoptic survey of surface waters and well observations to establish a baseline understanding of the extent of surface and groundwater contamination. 
  • Met Council staff will provide data, information, and planning tools to assist local governments in resilient water resources and infrastructure planning and decision-making for a changing climate: 
  • Monitor Regional Priority Waters for the impacts of climate change.
  • Met Council staff will partner with professional associations or research institutions to test and develop best water resources management practices or wastewater treatment plant technological improvements. 

Water sustainability

We have an existing policy regarding wastewater sustainability. Below are the recommended actions could be added to the policy. 

  • The Met Council will implement and promote the use of nature-based, green infrastructure solutions on Met Council properties where feasible. 
  • Met Council staff will develop internal infrastructure design and placement guidelines based on the latest scientific and engineering knowledge to reduce their climate risk on longevity. 
  • Met Council staff will consider more extensive PFAS sampling and a mass balance approach to PFAS through our systems to help us better understand options for addressing PFAS at various points along the wastewater treatment plant processes. 

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.

Water Quality Research Paper Survey