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Water Resources Sustainability

Quantifying natural limits of the renewable resource

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." -Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac, 1746

Gooseberry Falls, MN, September 2005

What is Water Resources Sustainability?

Conceptual framework of sustainability

The quest for sustainable development is undoubtedly one of the most significant challenges for all societies across the world; however, there is a range of contentions surrounding the concept of sustainability. Understanding the complexity of sustainability requires a holistic "system thinking" approach.


Fritjof Capra (2002) provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding the concept of sustainability and its complexities. The fundamental basis is the recognition that sustainability is a result of the organization of life in the Earth's biosphere, which has endured for over 3 billion years. Our primary source of understanding the nature of sustainability should focus on the processes that have allow it to occur. To achieve sustainability over the long run is to strengthen our capacity of making continuous improvement in human activities so that we will not undermine the resilience of our life-support systems. The key is effective 'feedback' and capacity to respond with appropriate changes in human and economics activities. Once humans adjust their activities according to the 'feedback' received from the interaction with the environment, sustainability can be achieved. A natural example of this is when a population exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment in some way; the result is a degradation in the flow of food and water or lack of shelter, eventually causing sufficient declines in the population to bring it back within the limit of the environment's carrying capacity (Heintz, 2004).

The Brundtland Commission offered the popular definition of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987). The definition is vague: it does not specify the categories of human and ecological needs and does not give a clear time frame for analysis; nor does it indicate particular roles for the environment or social concerns in long-term development. This definition needs to be operationalized, and indeed numerous indicators 'for' and 'of' sustainable development have since been advanced. Sustainability indicators typically focus on a range of issues and are, ideally, broad enough to permit a complete appraisal of systems spanning from both natural and managed systems. These indicators can measure more than one aspect of the parameter and will commonly focus on both time and threshold (e.g.; efficiency, sufficiency, equity, and quality of life).

Application to water resources sustainability

For water resources issues, the key indicator of sustainability is the renewable capacity of the hydrologic system. The insight from various spatial perspectives - global, regional and local - must be blended and the time horizon for that indicator must be extended to encompass all future generations. In this formulation the concept of water resources sustainability becomes operational and it leads to the quantitative meaning. That quantitative meaning can be summarized as: Genuine sustainability requires that consumption by humans and ecological services will not cause a decline or depletion of freshwater resources (Kanivetsky and Shmagin, 2005).

Why is Water Resources Sustainability a concern in Minnesota?

Water resources sustainability is the key to Minnesota's economy, healthy ecosystem functioning and the well-being of its present and future generations. Yet, presently, the State of Minnesota is managing water resources unsustainably. This practice is a concern for the State, educators, businesses and general public because of intensified competition for water among various human needs, while at the same time, nature requires sufficient supplies of water in terms of quantity as well as quality.

The result of unsustainable practices in Minnesota is evident across the range of dimensions of the environmental degradation, including stream flow depletion and lake desiccation, degradation of water quality in streams and rivers, loss of wetlands and sensitive areas, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, decrease in stream flow and ground water levels, contamination of surface and ground waters, land use changes, and lastly, competition for in-stream flow needs for recreation, navigation, waste assimilation and aquatic habitat. As our water resources become depleted and degraded, so is the natural resource base that sustains the economy (Nelson, 1998). Water resources include groundwater, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and the like. The label of Minnesota as water rich does not fit as well as once thought. In many parts of the State, the demands on renewable water resources are a special concern for water supply management (VanBuren and Wells, 2007).

Development of the Rochester - Twin Cities- St. Cloud corridor is already making significant demands on water resources. In addition, there is intensified competition statewide for water between human and ecological needs due to the emerging demands for water such as the bio-fuel production industry, agriculture and additional industries, transportation, recreation and ecosystem services. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board concluded that research within the State is necessary to understand what volume of water can be taken for use on a long-term, sustainable basis without drawing down the resource (VanBuren and Wells, 2007).

The Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources(LCCMR) has funded the development of a Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan. This is included in the LCCMRs Six-Year Strategic Plan for the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Part of this Strategic Plan is to provide protection to fragile or unique natural resources, including trout streams, ground water resources, surface water flows, wetlands and fens where further development or neglect could cause irreparable harm or loss.

How is Minnesota addressing Water Resources Sustainability?

The challenge of transition toward sustainable management of freshwater resources confronts scientists, technologists, writers, policy makers, as well as communities from local to global levels (NSTC, 2004; Anderson and Woosley, 2005; Water Resources Update, issue No. 127, 2004; Gordon and Richter, 2006; Lester Brown, 2006; Al Gore, 1993; Thomas Berry, 1999; Falkenmark, 2008; Falkenmark and Molden, 2008; Falkenmark and Rockstrom, 2004). Yet, little systematic knowledge exists on how to begin to address this challenge (Tippett, 2004, 2005; Tippett et.al., 2005). A recent report by the U.S. National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) urges the federal government to take new steps to understand freshwater sustainability in the United States (NSTC, 2007).

Minnesota Legislature has established the legal and institutional framework to ensure that water supplies meet human and environmental needs for present and future generations. Minnesota Statutes, section 103G.265 assigns the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the task of managing water resources to meet long-range needs for a variety of economic, social and ecological purposes. Although the DNR stated the needs for sustainable water use (DNR, 2005), it does not have a quantitative base to compare a growing demand with the supply of the natural hydrologic system. It is becoming clear that traditional approaches are not able to address the water resources sustainability issue. To address this concern, the LCCMR funded a two year project to the University of Minnesota titled Water Resources Sustainability. A project summary is included below and status updates are posted on the ResearchProjects link.

The Water Resources Sustainability Project

This project will develop a new approach and tool to quantify the renewable water resources supply at multiple scales and demonstrate it at the State, regional and county levels. Once the limit of the hydrologic system as a renewable (i.e. sustainable) water resource is determined, the State will be able to move toward sustainable water use by developing a new framework for managing water resources based on a comparison of human and environmental needs with the quantitative tool developed in this project. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are quantifying freshwater sustainability by addressing the key scientific question: How does landscape heterogeneity control spatial and temporal variability of stream runoff, ground-water flux (recharge/discharge) and vadose zone flux, across spatial scales?

This new paradigm parameterizes and quantifies the relationships between landscape components and water balance characteristics. The landscape model is applied to the watershed water balance quantitative characterization in which all components of the terrestrial hydrologic system (surface water, vadoze zone and ground water) are integrated. The method is not only quantifying the water balance characteristics, but also provides a practical mapping tool. This is currently the only methodology that can address the issue of water resources sustainability. The key indicator in freshwater sustainability is the ratio of renewable water supply to water use by humans and the environment (Kanivetsky and Shmagin, 2005).

A summary of the Water Resources Sustainability Project and its status is available at this link:


Morning in Duluth
Pequaywan Lake-Duluth, MN, June 2008

Background information explaining components of water resources sustainability, including the influence of the hydrologic cycle and the factors affecting it can be found at this link :

A summary of common water resources definitions:

Publications authored and presentations given by the water resources sustainability research group:

A list of references documented throughout this website are attached:

University of Minnesota's - Water Resources Sustainability Group

The water resources sustainability research group includes:

Webpage designed and updated by Heidi Peterson.

Topic revision: r48 - 25 Sep 2009 - 13:05:41 - HeidiPeterson
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