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Our View: Action needed to protect our water

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Within a one-hour drive of Rochester, we have more than 100,000 acres of state parks, wildlife management areas and forest, maybe 100 miles of state or private trails open to biking and walking, several hundred miles of trout streams, about 75,000 acres of state land open to hunting, about 25,000 acres of national wildlife refuge, more than 100 miles of the Mississippi River, two Olmsted County parks, several Rochester flood-control reservoirs, three major river systems (two are great for paddling; one is tricky), the state's longest-known cave system open to the public, a private cave open to the public, and Lake Pepin, which is part of the Mississippi.
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As Gov. Mark Dayton starts to wind up Water Action Week, it's worth noting he had planned to dedicate time today to visit one of only four Minnesota counties without a natural lake.

Mower County — along with Olmsted, Pipestone and Rock counties — may not have natural lakes in a state known for them, but that doesn't make access to quality water any less important.

While the governor's tour of Austin's water treatment plant was canceled due to illness, it's still worth noting a plan to replace the facility could be eligible for state funds under Dayton's clean water infrastructure proposal, which includes as much as $220 million in state bonding. Dayton has also planned a Mower County farm visit to discuss buffer strips, another of his priorities when it comes to protecting the state's water.

Whether for drinking or recreation, maintaining access to clean water is crucial for the state. In the wake of contamination found in Flint, Mich., Dayton has found a topic that resonates. By ending Water Action Week on Earth Day, he's doubling down on the message.

The problem cannot be ignored.

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According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than 40 percent of the state's waters are considered impaired, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports invasive species have infested more than 550 lakes statewide.

At the same time, water treatment plants and other water systems need work that smaller communities cannot afford. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Minnesota is $11 billion behind in maintaining its water treatment and delivery systems for the next 20 years.

Findings like these fuel concern when we see Minnesota House Republicans propose slashing the governor's proposed $1.4 billion bonding bill to about $600 million. It's hard to imagine the $220 million sought for water-quality initiatives will remain intact after such a cut, especially with the state's surplus dollars already being eyed for potential tax reform and other state spending.

Maintaining quality water standards isn't only about healthy drinking water, which should be enough to inspire aggressive action.

Protecting our waterways is also about ensuring future economic growth in the region. The quality of our water has an enormous impact on the quality of life in our region and state, even in counties without natural lakes.

Regardless of how they were formed, our lakes, rivers and streams provide countless recreational activities that attract short-term visitors, but they also help encourage others to consider the state and region as home.

With a growing workforce shortage, it's important to consider all efforts that can help make Minnesota a destination for visitors, as well as those seeking quality jobs and a quality way of life.

Protecting our water quality needs to be one of those efforts.

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