UMN researchers examine how climate change affects state’s water

The research is meant to help lawmakers and state agencies plan and create policy for the future.

Natalie Rademacher

University of Minnesota researchers are examining the value of water in Minnesota by downscaling global climate models to a local level and mapping how climate change will affect water resources in the state.

This project, now in its fourth year, is one of the first to look into the future at how climate change can affect water resources in Minnesota, said Bonnie Keeler, lead investigator for the project.

The results of the project will help state agencies in planning and creating policy in order to adapt as climate affects the amount and quality of water around the state.

“There is a perception that we are a state rich in water resources and therefore don’t need to be concerned with having enough water in the future,” Keeler said. “That assumption hasn’t been checked, especially with what we think might happen with [the] climate.”

Tracy Twine, a University associate professor and co-investigator for the project, downscales larger climate models, such as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to create maps with more specific information on how climate change will affect Minnesota. Twine said she is about halfway done with creating the maps. 

Many climate reports are good at figuring out how climate change will affect the state at large, Twine said, but don’t look at specific regions in the state.

Because weather and climate can be unpredictable, Twine has been using several climate prediction models to look at how climate will change in Minnesota. 

The models, which Twine downscales through the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, are being used by Keeler and Kate Brauman, a co-investigator for the project, to show how future climate predictions will affect water resources in Minnesota.

Using data from state agencies, Keeler looks at how much water the state is using and compares it to the estimated amount of water Minnesota will have in the future using the project’s climate projections.

Along with analyzing Minnesota’s future water supply, the project is also examining how clean water affects human well-being.

When lakes in Minnesota warm up, they become more rich in nutrients, affecting water clarity and odor, Keeler said. This research examines how having clean water, even for recreational use, is valuable to people and should be a factor when looking at how to address future water resources. 

Keeler’s previous research shows that people care about the quality and clarity of lakes and will travel farther to visit cleaner lakes.

“We take for granted that we have sufficient water for swimming and recreation and that we have beautiful lakes and rivers,” Keeler said.

The climate model projections also show how changing temperatures affect the amount of water lost to evaporation and how much water goes into the soil or becomes runoff.

Keeler and Brauman also look at where the water ends up, who uses the water and what it is used for to help predict how things like drinking water and water recreation will be affected by climate change.

Keeler said she is excited to get the information in the hands of state lawmakers and agencies so they can see the value of water and how water resources in Minnesota are being affected by climate change. 

“People are making decisions now about investments in water infrastructure and planning that may lock us into certain paths. … If we have some idea of what the future might look like, it may help us with strategic planning now,” Keeler said.

The research is being funded in part by a grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. One of the priorities of the LCCMR is to help collect and disseminate information needed to make decisions related to how resources in Minnesota are managed, according to Becca Nash, director of the LCCMR. 

“This project kind of hits the bullseye on that,” she said.

Funding through the grant will continue until June. Afterward, Keeler said they hope to use the climate data in future projects.