Stump Bay, Mississippi River
Mississippi River, Stump Bay © Richard Hamilton Smith

Stories in Minnesota

Water Fund Invests in Nature and Clean Water

Q&A with Doug Shaw, Assistant State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota

Minnesota Headwaters Fund
Minnesota Headwaters Fund logo © TNC

Nature Conservancy has created the Minnesota Headwaters Fund — a $10-million, privately-funded investment to support our work to accomplish high-impact conservation of Mississippi River watersheds in Minnesota to ensure clean water is available for people, business and nature.

Doug Shaw, assistant state director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, is leading the effort. We caught up with Doug recently to learn more about the Fund and how investing in nature will protect clean water in Minnesota.

The Nature Conservancy is focusing its work to protect healthy waters in three parts of Minnesota, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River above Minneapolis and St. Paul. Why is this a focus area for the Conservancy?

Doug Shaw

The Mississippi River directly supplies drinking water to almost 1 million people in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. Its water-rich basin is also important for agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, tourism and recreation, all key sectors of Minnesota’s economy.

Protecting land and water in the headwaters, or upper tributaries that are the source of the Mississippi River, will secure safe drinking water supplies, sustain and enhance recreation opportunities, protect forests and jobs and provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in the future. By protecting these areas now, we will avoid the high cost of restoration that occurs once the waters become degraded.

What are some of the challenges to maintaining healthy waters in this area?

Doug Shaw

Right now, water in the basin is relatively clean and inexpensive. But in other parts of Minnesota, water quality in rivers and lakes is being degraded by nutrients and sediment as surrounding lands are converted to urban and agricultural uses. As a result, communities are struggling with higher water treatment costs.

In the Crow Wing River in central Minnesota, for example, a recent study showed that even modest changes in land use can have profound effects on the amount of contaminants in the water that must be treated. In the study, a 4.5 percent increase in the acreage of agricultural lands increased nitrate levels in the river 19 percent.

We don’t want to see that happen in the Mississippi headwaters area. Yet, we know that forest-to-agricultural land conversion in the river’s upper basin is happening fast. Between 2008 and 2013, more than 260,000 acres of forest, wetland and grassland have been converted to agriculture, with the largest proportion of this occurring in critical water supply source areas. According to a 2008 study by the Trust for Public Lands, for every 10 percent decrease in forest cover in the source area, the cost of water treatment for communities increases by 20 percent.

Is there a solution?

Doug Shaw

Once land is converted, it is harder to conserve or repair lost or degraded water resources. Conserving forests before they are converted to urban or agricultural use has proven to dramatically reduce water degradation in places like New York City and Lake Tahoe.

That’s why we have created the Minnesota Headwaters Fund. A water fund is an agreement that allows downstream water users to invest in upstream conservation actions that provide benefits, including clean drinking water for communities and aquatic habitat for fish and wildlife.

How will the water fund work?

Doug Shaw

The fund will support conservation work in targeted watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River basin in Minnesota, including easements, stream bank and floodplain restoration, and other projects that prevent pollutants such as nitrates and sediment from entering key rivers and lakes.

Monitoring and evaluation will be key to this project to ensure that the actions we take are sustaining good water quality, reducing the risk of contamination and ensuring that water treatment costs for communities are stable.

Does the Conservancy have experience with water funds?

Doug Shaw

The Conservancy has extensive experience with water funds. Together with our partners, our growing portfolio of water funds now includes 42 initiatives in various stages of development, which provide a steady source of funding for the conservation of more than 7 million acres of watersheds and secure drinking water for nearly 50 million people. To date more than 715,500 acres of land have been directly impacted through water fund-supported conservation.

Where will the funding come from for the Minnesota water fund?

Doug Shaw

The Conservancy is working to raise $10 million in private dollars over the next three years from companies, foundations and individuals to complete the Fund. Ecolab Inc., the global leader in water, hygiene and energy technologies and services, is the first local company to contribute to the Fund with a $500,000 commitment through the Ecolab Foundation. Interested investors should contact for more information.

Is there a role for public funding?

Doug Shaw

Protecting clean water in Minnesota will require that citizens, business, government and nonprofits work together. Minnesota will receive a significant influx of federal and state funding for water programs in the coming years, and the Fund can be used to stretch those public dollars to strategically conserve enough land in high-impact watersheds to ensure the Mississippi River continues to provide clean water for nature, people and business in Minnesota. The Conservancy has already secured $1 million in public support for the water fund.

Why is it important to launch this water fund now?

Doug Shaw 

Minnesotans value the healthy, functioning lakes and rivers we rely on for drinking water, irrigation, manufacturing, transportation and world-class recreation opportunities. Investing in conservation in high-impact watersheds before forests are converted to other uses will be more effective and generate a greater return on investment than waiting until reclamation or restoration is necessary.

The Minnesota Headwaters Fund is a way for citizens, business and government to take action now to protect our waters while they are still healthy. Together we can invest in Minnesota’s water future… for our economy, our environment, our health, our children and ourselves.