MARSHALL - Rural Minnesotans have a voice in the pursuit of cleaner air and water if they choose to use it. That's the principal message Clean Up the River Environment members will spend a chunk of the rest of this summer spreading.
Members of CURE, an organization that works with water, soil health, climate and energy, are visiting newspaper editorial boards around the state to spread awareness of its efforts to turn climate and energy issues into more than just a blip on society's radar screen. It's a state-wide public campaign fueled by global warming and the effect it's had on increasingly-extreme weather patters.
"In a way, it's the beginning of a campaign," said Peg Furshong, director of operations and constituent relations with CURE. "This is a crisis, and people don't think it's happening here, so they don't care. Outstate Minnesota has a voice in this and can be heard and be active. I think oftentimes everyone thinks their voice is so small so they don't always make the effort. CURE is really trying to empower people to be that voice in Windom, or that voice in Tracy, or in Westbrook, or Clarkfield."
The federal Clean Power Plan was announced by President Barack Obama on June 2 with a goal of reducing carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels. State plans for reducing carbon emissions are due for Environmental Protection Agency review by June 2016 and multi-state plans are due by June 2018.
Last month, the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote took away some of the government's power to tighten emission standards but preserved the majority of its authority under federal law to regulate greenhouse gases. That decision affirmed what the scientific community has long concluded - that greenhouse gases are pollutants that cause global warming. And Furshong said one of CURE's goals is to enhance access of transmission of wind and solar, not only for local use but also for export.
She said the state could be exporting renewable energy instead of importing coal, but while the state has the ability to harness an abundance of renewable energy the key is getting that transmission in place.
"There are local municipalities that would like to put in renewable energy, and getting them access to transmission would help." she said. "It isn't always accessible in rural Minnesota."
Furshong said wind and solar can be further expanded in Minnesota, and, in line with EPA recommendations, the state can do other things to attain a cleaner environment like refurbishing and improving the efficiency of old coal fire plants, increasing natural gas power plants and increasing the use of renewable energy.
"And even while you may not think it makes a difference, individual homeowners and businesses can do things, too, and there are incentives for that," Furshong said.
CURE member Don Robertson said the controversial issue of climate change has in some ways become a local issue, not just one debated about in Washington D.C. He said last winter's introduction to what is now known as the polar vortex might make people scoff at the notion the planet is getting warmer, but global warming, he said is affecting us - societally and economically.
"I think one thing that's pretty evident - just in the last week or so - is that something is going on as far as the climate is concerned," said Robertson, the director of international student services at Southwest Minnesota State University. "As I drive in from Belview or drive around the area and see new lakes that are forming or old ones that are reappearing - this is becoming a localized issue reflecting a much larger, global phenomenon."
Robertson and Furshong wish public energy co-ops would get on board more with renewable energy.
Xcel Energy and some of the larger private companies are under the jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission and have been mandated to reduce their dependency on coal and do more for the renewable energy sources. However, Robertson said, "many of our huge public cooperatives are not. Many local municipalities - you see windmills in Redwood Falls, Buffalo Ridge - some of the local communities see the advantage of having renewable energy and local resources."
"They're still relying on coal, and they're bringing the largest amount of coal into the state right now because they've got an exemption, because they are a co-op," Furshong said.
Minnesota has for years been considered a frontrunner in the renewable energy game. CURE research shows that electricity use in Minnesota has dropped in recent years and that 15 percent of energy comes from renewable sources, primarily wind. Also, carbon emissions in the state have been reduced 20 percent. Still, Furshong said the state can, and should, do more.
"It doesn't mean we should stop," she said. "We're on track for reduced carbon emissions, but there are other things we can do that are related to climate that help the land and the water."
CURE member Steve Petrich said there's no denying global warming is out there and that we need to slow it down.
"I don't think the students are aware, and if the students aren't aware, the parents aren't aware," said Petrich, a science teacher at Yellow Medicine East High School in Granite Falls. "We're gonna have to live with the current situation for probably one or two generations; all we can do is slow it down."
Furshong would like to not only see more youth at the events CURE puts on during the year, but more new faces, too.
"We see the same faces, the same 15 or 20 families coming to everything," she said.
Aside from energy issues, CURE is vocal about soil and water as well. In Minnesota with the predominance of farm fields, Furshong would like to see less tiling and more buffering and prairie grass. She said the difference between farmers with fields that have buffer strips and those that don't is vast. She's not against tiling, but thinks there's too much of it.
Having buffer strips or prairie grasses on the land instead of tiling, she said, would keep water from running off as fast as it has during heavy wet periods as most of Minnesota has seen the past two weeks. She said farmers who tile everything aren't thinking about the residual effects tiling can have and where the water is going.
"That really a lot of the aftermath of what's happening with the Minnesota River and over in the LeSueur area," she said. "I'm not saying tiling is bad, but there's been no research or study everybody's just putting it in because they have money to put it in and they want to move the water off the land. And they're not thinking about what's going to happen in a month when their aquifer wasn't replanted underneath them because that water got moved off too fast."
Furshong said money is available through the Department of Agriculture for buffer strips.
"It costs farmers practically nothing to put them in, people just aren't taking advantage of them," she said.