Environment report card highlights threat in Minn. from ‘mega-rains’

Published 9:32 am Thursday, December 15, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — As global temperatures warm, Minnesota residents need to prepare for increases in catastrophic “mega-rains” and a greater spread of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, according to a draft environmental report card for the state.

The report card comes from the Environmental Quality Board, a coordinating body for state government agencies on environmental issues. The board will discuss the draft Dec. 21. The final version will provide a foundation for the Minnesota Environmental Congress in February.

The report card is organized around five key areas: water, land, air, energy and climate. Each section uses three metrics to assess how well Minnesota’s environment is doing in those areas. It rates their current status as green, yellow and red to correspond with good, OK and poor. And it uses up arrows, flat arrows or down arrows to indicate recent trends.

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“We’re hoping it’s pretty user-friendly. It’s designed for a broad audience,” Will Seuffert, the EQB’s executive director, said Monday.

Most metrics scored as yellow. Only one, household energy use, scored green. Four scored red with a downward trend.

“Minnesota’s changing climate, our declining pheasant population, our reliance on petroleum, and nitrate in our groundwater are all issues that need urgent attention,” the 31-page draft said.

The report card singled out climate-related issues for the lowest marks, saying Minnesota is warming more quickly than either the U.S. or the global average. That’s meant more frequent extreme weather events, it said, particularly “mega-rains,” when at least 6 inches of rain affects over 1,000 square miles. Minnesota has experienced seven of them in the past 17 years, compared with four in the previous 27. Minnesota recorded two of these events this year for the first time ever.

“With more warming expected, Minnesota should be prepared for a continued increase in these devastating storms,” the report said.

Human health is also affected by warming weather, the report warned. It contains maps showing how ticks are becoming more widespread across Minnesota, so the chances of exposure to serious illnesses including Lyme disease are increasing. Four counties in east-central Minnesota were the only ones to record 50 or more Lyme cases per 100,000 people from 1996 to 2001. From 2008 to 2013, 12 counties in east-central, north-central and southeastern Minnesota had hit those levels.

The board last issued an environmental report card in 2012 ahead of its first environmental congress in 2013. While the 2012 version also addressed water, land, air, energy and climate, the format has since changed. Seuffert said the focus on the status and trends of major indicators is meant to make the information more accessible and to draw more people to the congress, which is Feb. 3 at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

“We must be prepared to make tough decisions now to avoid pushing our environmental concerns down the road for the next generation to address,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a foreword to the report. “No single leader, institution, or business can accomplish this alone. To move forward we need all of us — citizens, government, industry, and the diverse communities across our state — to put our minds together, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.”