Featured Advocate: Carrie E. Jennings, Freshwater Society

Headshot of Carrie JenningsSaint Paul, Minnesota

The mission of Freshwater Society is “to inspire and empower people to value and preserve our freshwater resources.” They “translate science into policy and action to preserve our freshwater resources.” 

This interview was conducted on July 21, 2021. It has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.  

Check out the report Carrie mentions in her interview, Groundwater Governance, Well Cobbled? A descriptive assessment of hydrology and institutional networks in six Great Lakes states and the tribes that share their geography

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Freshwater Society, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues?

Carrie Jennings (CJ): My name is Carrie Jennings and I am Research and Policy Director at Freshwater. When I was hired five years ago, I didn’t know what that meant exactly. I was in a different role, I had always been a field geologist, worked for our state Geological Survey and then work with our Department of Natural Resources (DNR), doing mapping of the glacial geology of our state. And then, a couple years as a Science Reports Lead at the DNR, so I told Freshwater I would come for a year, just to see what they wanted me to actually do, and it turned out to be a really nice way to kind of transition into more impactful work and use all that geologic knowledge and knowledge about where groundwater was and what was impacting surface water, then implement what I thought needed to be implemented to get things back on track. 

Over the course of my 24-year mapping career, I saw streams degrading significantly. I would often give presentations out on the landscape to communities where I had just mapped their geology and they would always ask the question- they would love stories, the geologic stories, they’re fun- but they would always ask a very specific question about a resource challenge they were facing, and I was happy at the time to say “that’s not my job, I don’t do that,” and they were like, “Yeah, but we need help.” And now I know those challenges and I’m also in a position to communicate those needs to legislators. We talk about groundwater sustainability and surface water protection. There are a lot of water nonprofits in Minnesota, but we are the only one that really focuses on groundwater, as well as surface water, so we look at it more from a, not like a human health standpoint, but more of a sustainable use, especially in the face of climate change, we want to make sure there’s resiliency in the system. 

With the surface water quality, the twin cities, Minneapolis and St Paul both rely on the Mississippi River drinking and it’s a historically low flow right now because of the drought. We think about what to big cities do when water flow gets so low that their intakes aren’t operating correctly or the quality degrades. We deal a lot with the stuff that is outside of the Clean Water Act. I should say that this nonprofit predates the Clean Water Act, we’re 51 years old and it started in a garage on a kind of a fancy lake in Minnesota where some people noticed some water quality challenges and they got private sector funding to start a lab to start doing water testing. We’ve grown away from that direct water testing lab work and instead are working on educating and engaging the community or cities that are asking critical questions, city councils or whoever is trying to make change happen. We don’t always have to go to the state policy levels, we will work at whatever level is trying to get the work done and then we try to get those durable solutions. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? 

CJ: I wrote a series of white papers about groundwater and the challenges that municipalities are facing and then challenges that result from the agricultural uses that are impacting ground water quality and quantity. One of the things that we’ve tried to focus on is we sometimes feel like the best way for groundwater to be managed is from the municipal level, our former director was really hard hitting on this point—cities know their use, they report their uses to the DNR, they know how they want to grow, they know the industrial pressures. What they need is information about their aquifer being fed to them so they can make their best decisions. It’s nice if the city still has the authority to make those decisions, this is our former director’s position, I don’t diverge too far from that… It’s the state’s role to provide that information: on the geology, who else is using it, provide the pumping data, and share back with those cities. We have lobbied to keep that control local. The state has decided that there are certain parts that are seeing declining groundwater. They’re getting a lot of well interference complaints. These all tend to be sandy areas at the surface, where there’s a lot of irrigated agriculture and where surface water bodies are being impacted.  

We try to help the agricultural communities understand conservation practices. We’ve worked with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. SWCDs are often recommending manager practices to farmers- irrigation scheduling conserves groundwater, or just irrigating based on sensors that are closer to your fields as opposed to some regional precipitation measure. We’re supportive of all those efforts. Our role typically is to go out and help facilitate those conversations, so we might have an SWCD that wants to talk to a bunch of irrigators in an area. It’s hard to get people in a room like that and have a productive conversation without acting like the authority or not respecting the barriers and the challenges that they face to implementing some of this work. We use a technique, called the “Art of Hosting Conversations” that harvest the information in the room, make everybody an even, equal participant in the ultimate decision. Then we’ll try to write this up, so that the Soil and Water Conservation District, and the state knows how to go forward. Often from those conversations we’ll come up with a very clear policy recommendation and then try to get state funding directed to it. We’ve done the same thing in an urban setting for a community that knew that their water infrastructure was not adequate- in this case, it was storm water not drinking water- because of climate change. But they had a climate denialist on the staff. And that was dominating the conversation and they couldn’t move forward. We’ll help host a difficult conversation like that to help them move forward and take action. 

I will say, though, as far as access, we are moving more into the environmental justice arena, and equal access to water. Our state, though, is very good and proactive about making sure public water is healthy. They test it not just for contaminants that have been introduced, but the geo-genic contaminants like arsenic and manganese, we have lower standards than most places. We’re being very proactive about the PFAS situation, partly because we had a big out of court settlement with 3M. But I think the other thing that we’re doing along those lines is the 3M plant and their landfills have contaminated an urban-suburban region and really done a number on the bedrock aquifer in that region. 

The way we’re entering into that is a potential solution, one thing they might have to do is pump a whole bunch of water out and treat it. But the volume of water significant and dewatering that aquifer is really not a good plan, so we have been looking at the possibility of doing managed aquifer recharge, so injecting that water back into the ground. What you would need to do before that, what state laws need to change to do aquifer storage, managed aquifer recharge, what kind of treatment options will be needed? We looked at other examples to show some specific places where this is already being done. We’re trying to push the state, the state agencies don’t really always have the science capacity to be on the leading edge of certain things and we try to push them in that direction. 

RN: Access to clean drinking water intersects with public health, environmental justice, climate resiliency, and other issues tied to our health and well-being, like housing. How does your work fit into these broader systems? 

CJ: I think the other only other thing I would say along those lines is that so far, our strategic plan has us stopping at the pipe that goes into the house, so a Flint scenario where it’s a lead pipe service line to a house, we don’t currently work in that pipe infrastructure. But that problem did also involve changes to the chemistry of the water being supplied by the municipality so that would be something that we would care about. 

I want to give you this example of the Joyce project that we’re doing right now that is called Groundwater Governance in the Great Lakes. Joyce out of Chicago funded this work and we’re setting the stage for long-term investment for the Joyce project and the Joyce Foundation was a big player in the formation of the Great Lakes compact. And now, they want to move into the groundwater space, but beyond the Great Lakes watersheds into the states that surround the Great Lakes and so we’re looking at Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and all the tribal nations within that geographic area. 

And what the existing groundwater governance structure is, but not just the governance structure, we’re studying that through document review and legal reviews, but which agencies are implementing it? We’re talking to specific people in those agencies and tribal nations, and we also want to talk to people that have less formal roles in this like nonprofits or universities or sometimes it’s just a consultant that gets a hair and just wants to really make something happen. That’s the case in Indiana, there’s this Jack Whitman who’s this really active person who’s a thorn in the side of the state government, because he wants to ground rules to change in Indiana. 

By the end of this one year, we will have identified, not just the status of groundwork governance, the best practices, but individuals that will convene to elevate these and share these best practices and for Joyce to have a relationship going forward with them so that they can continue the work. I think their ultimate goal is a soft policy goal but it’s, “let’s grow a robust groundwater governance in this region, rather than have one opposed.” 

I’ve had three interviews with some tribal nations today. And it’s all week, we’re going to be talking ultimately to at least 30. Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana don’t have any sovereign nations anymore, but Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin do. There’s one example, that is only 400- or 500-person tribe, that has this really wealthy casino. They are doing everything; they are doing reverse osmosis of their drinking water and they’re providing to neighboring cities that are twin city suburbs, they’re recycling all of their stormwater and they just have the vision and the continuity and the money to make it all happen. They’re better than any state in the region. 

Then we talked at the same time, we talked to another, that was a Dakota tribe, another Dakota tribe that’s got one person, no money, no continuity and tribal leadership, they don’t know their geology, they don’t know where the records are, and they’re struggling.  Their tribal members are drinking from springs. And then everywhere in between, and so this is fascinating, a completely unknown area for us and we’re just finding that the relationships are pretty easy to open up and build. 

Red Lake is a closed reservation in Minnesota, you’re not allowed even to go on the land and they don’t share anything with you, and it’s huge. And I thought, “they’re not going to know what’s going on in [in terms of groundwater] the reservation.” We talked to a young person who is doing a master’s degree in the water balance of his reservation and he’s set out equipment to measure evaporation. He was able to tell me that one inch of water came off this giant lake in Minnesota on a 94-degree day recently. He also is meeting with the Corps of Engineers today because the Enbridge pipeline is going through their land. He knows that they base their permit calculations on a river that they control the flow on and so it’s artificially a steady looking stream and they’re in severe drought right now. He was on top of his game, doing a PhD, collaborating with USGS and it was just it blew me away, it was so impressive. 

RN: Part of our desire to build a Great Lakes directory is to foster connections, hopefully this can help in future projects like the one you’re talking about, to be an easy place to see what organizations exist that you can look up by issue and region, etc.  Are there other organizations that you’ve partnered with and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work did you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together? 

CJ: The Joyce project is our first Great Lakes-wide initiative and we’re still not including New York and Pennsylvania. But because it started last March, and because it kind of hit some press release, I was connected immediately with FLOW and they had me give a talk on their webinar series, and now I feel like I’m buddies with Dave Dempsey, and Liz at FLOW. We’re exchanging information back and forth. That was really nice to have that connection. I haven’t found any other nonprofits like that in this work so far, but I’m really engaged by this consultant in Indiana, Jack Whitman, and what he’s trying to do. I’m kind of learning who these people are by having hour long interviews with them. I know the Minnesota landscape really well. We’re currently trying to trying to do some more work in- well, I was born in Indiana, from Ohio, went to school in Illinois, vacation in Wisconsin and Michigan, and now I live in Minnesota so I feel like I know the Great Lakes. 

I’ve driven across, swum and sailed in all of them, I just know the land, the glacial landscape, that’s my specialty and I think that region is unique, because of the glaciation history. 

The other connections I have built across the region that are long standing and have built a lot of trust are through my mapping experience. I know people in all those state geological surveys and the US Geological Survey. They know my work and reputation and so that makes it easy to enter into a more quick and trusting relationship with a group because I’m able to speak to the specific geology and conditions of their region. No matter where they are it opens the door, plus I speak Midwest. 

The party game I play in Minnesota is, I can tell people what the first shovel full of dirt in their backyard is going to be and I could do that with some confidence over this whole region. Michigan’s a little bit of a mess, but I could probably do it if I looked at a Google map. 

RN: What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?  

CJ: We have lottery money and a sales tax that provides money in addition to some other state funding for drinking water work to happen. We can apply for grants from the state to do our work. One of the things we’re trying to do, though, behind the scenes, is the constitutional amendment that generated the sales tax money runs out in 2034 and that feels all too soon to us. 

We’ve already once convened the stakeholders that are originally came together to pass that constitutional amendment. We need to re-up that amendment. One of the challenges is to show that the money is well spent and it’s worth this small sales tax. People don’t want to spend any money if they haven’t seen a return on their investment. One of the things that’s happened as a result of our promoting it is that the group that is in charge of allocating and tracking that funding has gotten really good at labeling things out in the public and sending out newsletters and updates and bragging about how it’s being spent. It’s important because clean water is kind of hard to see. 

We got a bill passed this legislative session that I’m just thrilled about because we started doing the science 15 years ago and we finally got it into policy, at least for a two-year pilot, a million dollars a year. Then we’ll have to figure out permanent funding for it, and this is to clean up our dirtiest watershed. It’s a surface watershed, but it does impact drinking water. And it’s disseminated agricultural pollution, so I think one of the bigger challenges is how to deal with these non-point source pollution issues that were left out of the Clean Water Act and that are too politically hot to really address. If you throw more money at them and compensate farmers for doing what they should have been doing, potentially, according to urban dwellers, you’re throwing more money at the problem. And yet, there are people trying to make a livelihood out there on the landscape. You don’t want to just take farmland away from them to mimic the way hydrology used to be so there is a challenge there, and more so, it’s a political battle.  

It’s rural-urban, it’s republican-democrat, it’s becoming like the national level, the sides are farther and farther apart. We had a bipartisan bill this session, but that is getting increasingly hard. In part, because the Republicans that we’re used to working with at the state Capitol- we have a divided House and Senate, one’s Republican, one’s Democratic. The reasonable Republicans are being challenged from the right. They’re getting unseated, and the rural areas are getting more and more to the right and… just not wanting to compromise, not wanting to govern, really. That’s a huge challenge. 

I think the other challenge is that I made it sound like there were individual farmers out there in the landscape, but in reality, it’s corporations that are building large animal confinement units, that are major landholders and it’s not mom and pa farmer, it’s a soybean enterprise and corn growers association and they have amazing political power and money and resources to thwart a lot of efforts.  There are companies like Cargill that say they want to do sustainable work and have a sustainability coordinator, but their version of sustainability doesn’t feel sustainable to us. It doesn’t sound permanent enough, it’s cover crops that sequester carbon for a season. 

RN: What are the major campaigns or policy priorities that you’re currently working on? What kind of strategies are you using to advance your goals? 

CJ: We do just work at the state level currently we don’t do any federal policy. We passed a bill, and it was to create a new program. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts evolved out of the Dust Bowl and most of the farm practices that are on the ground and are funded were to keep soil in place on the field. The science that we started doing 15 years ago showed that the real problem is agricultural drainage systems that are conveying too much water to the stream too quickly and eroding the stream banks. Our streams are twice as wide as they used to be. All that sediment nutrient pollution is, in some places, making wells unusable and other cases it just eroding the wells away. There’re wells falling into the river. It’s a drinking water, surface water concern. 

The bill creates a new program to address the changing precipitation we’re seeing. We’re seeing these mega rain events. To address the agricultural drainage running water off too fast, we created a water storage program. There’s going to be a number of practices that are covered. The farmer gets to choose from a menu of practices and they get compensated for holding water back. But we want to make sure it actually changes the peak flow in the river. That’s an example of a recent success.  

What we’re focusing on for next session: we did a study on this managed aquifer recharge and whether it would be appropriate to ever pump water back into aquifers. We just want the state to be prepared in case- you don’t want to have to do this emergency room practice, with no experience and with no laws or rules in place. We do have a city that’s wells are dry. And they do seem like they have the potential to have water injected back into the ground. So, we recommended certain steps the state could take. Next legislative session we’re going to push a couple of those steps and they seem kind of mundane, but that means they’ll probably be easy to pass, to tuck in somewhere. You want to have characterized your aquifer pretty well to be able to do this. You need to have some pump test data, you need to know the transmissivity and how much storage capacity there is, and how quickly you can inject water into the ground and then how big a bubble can you create? And then, if you want to draw that back, what the efficiency of drawing that water back out again will be. 

We think the state needs to better organize its data, because these pump test datasets are out there, but they haven’t dedicated staff time to making them in an accessible database. That would save time and money, and it’s public information. Come on, make it available.  

 We also tried to get the Health Department to think about changing some of the ways they- The laws around injection wells, we currently don’t have the EPA authority, we haven’t assumed authority to do that. We’d like them to assume that authority. We would like them to look at our well code and not bar this type of injection well. But those are hard questions to ask them last year, when all health department staff are doing Covid work. Now that they’re not all tracking Covid cases they might have the capacity to evaluate those things. That will require some reinterpretation of rules, maybe some statute changes. So those are the two very dry things we are going to be working on next session. 

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date? What aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

CJ: I think it’s that law that we just passed, because in my former life I was the geologist mapping these counties, where the water wasn’t being stored anymore, and I was mapping them by canoeing these rivers and the rivers were changing before my eyes. They used to be these nice meandering streams and they were just two-lane highways widening, shoot straight rivers. And sometimes I couldn’t get to my field areas because the roads, the highways would be flooded for months on end or the highways were falling into the river. Bridges were falling into the river. It was profound change on the landscape. ICE (?) initiated some studies that went on, I was with them for about six years, they went on for nine years, that documented the sediment budget, where the sediment originated on the landscape, where it was stored temporarily, where it ended up. And we were able to fingerprint the sentiment sources. We were able to specifically say that this is not field sediment anymore, this is riverine corridor sediment. 

The problem is different, so the solutions have to be different. Then I shifted over to working with Freshwater and working on educating people on that difference. I’m not the only one who’s been doing this, but I did do this through my whole career. The solution is water storage high in the watershed. We even modeled where it had to be done, and now we know there are co-benefits like reducing nitrate and sediments. And we just passed it, so, yay! It just takes 15 years to go from the fundamental science to the policy…  

Events and ways to connect to Freshwater Society: 

CJ: We have a conference and lecture series. The one I’m in charge of is called the Moos Family Speaker Series and twice a year we bring in what we hope is a Ted talk level speaker to talk about some aspect of water that’s not overexposed in the region. The last one we had was Alistair Boxall from the UK, and he was talking about pharmaceuticals in water. Those are available archived on our website. I just got commitment from an Indigenous woman from Ontario named Deborah McGregor, who’s going to talk about environmental justice. She has a legal degree and a position in an environmental studies department at York University. She’s going to give us an Indigenous perspective on science, traditional ecological knowledge, environmental justice issues, we haven’t really honed the topic yet, but I would want to promote a talk like that, because she’s Canadian side but a Great Lakes example.