Bonnie Keeler is Braving New Waters

Humphrey School scientist focuses on ensuring equitable access to water
February 20, 2020
Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler
Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler
Photo: Rachel Desjardins

By Susan Maas

This week, the Humphrey School’s CREATE Initiative released a policy "toolkit" it developed for communities to use, to avoid green gentrification as they invest in green infrastructure in under-resourced communities. 

A key theme of the CREATE Initiative is the need to increase investments in green infrastructure such as parks and open space while preventing displacement of lower-income residents, which has long been an unintended outcome of efforts to protect and elevate environmental amenities. 

CREATE's new report identifies a range of policy tools—inclusionary zoning, rent control, and community benefits agreements, among others—that under-resourced communities can deploy to prevent displacement as cities accelerate efforts to fight climate change and environmental degradation. 

Civios video: The CREATE Initiative policy toolkit

We profiled Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler, who co-directs the CREATE Initiative, in our fall 2019 HUMPHREY Magazine. This version has been edited for length.


Like many Minnesotans, Bonnie Keeler grew up canoeing on and hiking beside the state’s abundant lakes, rivers, and streams. Today, warns the environmental scientist and assistant professor in Humphrey School’s Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program, those treasures, along with groundwater, are in peril. And the perils—shortages, floods, and pollution—hit some communities earlier and harder.

“If you’re in a rural community in southwest Minnesota, you may have a high water bill because you’re paying for nitrate contamination in your water supply. [And many of] our tribal communities don’t have access to the same water infrastructure and resources,” Keeler said during a September panel discussion at the 2019 Water Summit in Minneapolis. Climate change could exacerbate those inequities, she went on. 

“We have to be really thoughtful about the tradeoffs that we’re willing to make: who’s going to be the winner and who’s going to be the loser of water policies?”

These are the kinds of issues Keeler herself is thinking about. While she’s spent her career focused on water—evaluating its quality, assessing its true value, exploring how to protect it—she’s more recently turned her attention to how to ensure equitable access to it.

Expanding Vision

Keeler, who majored in biology at Colorado College and earned her master’s degree in ecology and doctorate in environmental economics at the University of Minnesota, did her dissertation on measuring the economic value of water quality to people. That led to a post as program director of the Natural Capital Project, a collaboration with Stanford University, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund that’s housed within the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

There, Keeler worked with entities including the World Bank, NGOs, and private industry to develop new ways of assessing and putting a price tag on “ecosystem services”: pollinator habitat, soil fertility, carbon sequestration and storage, pollution control, and other benefits that a healthy environment can provide. 

But she continued to grow more interested in “the kinds of environmental problems that were affecting underrepresented communities—those who, historically, have not been very well served by these types of entities. Or by the environmental movement in general.”

The experience of losing both of her parents to terminal illnesses caused Keeler to reflect on her career and fueled her desire to do work that had a more direct impact on people, “work that’s community engaged.” Her field of vision continued to expand, and she cast aside the “quantitative, reductionist lens” through which she envisioned most of her early research. 

“I started to see [environmental] problems as so much more social … than just straight-up scientific or economic problems,” she says. “I became really aware of how limited the toolkit I had to offer communities was [and] started seeking ways to reach out to groups that weren’t being served by the scientific enterprise.”

Today Keeler is still very much an environmental scientist. “Science teaches you how to be a critical thinker, to be thoughtful and rigorous in how you collect and interpret data, how to deal with uncertainty, and the importance of being transparent in the assumptions you make that influence your models and results,” she stresses. 

But research interests like the ecological impacts of long-term nitrogen fertilizer use have given way to questions that don’t just acknowledge human communities, but center them.

Keeler is working on water management and policy on several fronts. She’s sharing what she knows and is learning with University of Minnesota students in the classroom. “I try, in my teaching, to draw on my [work] experiences that I’ve had outside of the university,” she notes.

She’s continuing to conduct her own research. She’s the lead investigator on a multiyear project, funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), to determine how climate change will affect Minnesota’s water supply. Her team is collaborating with climate modeler Tracy Twine, an associate professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, to produce new high-resolution climate projections that will have ramifications for infrastructure, agriculture, and recreation in the state. 

“We’re taking that data on the road now, to get it into the hands of agencies and community groups [in hopes that] it will help people anticipate and respond to climate and water risks,” she says.

She’s also co-director with geographer Kate Derickson of the CREATE Initiative, an interdisciplinary research and graduate fellowship program that seeks to advance environmental equity. CREATE’s goal is to foster environmental solutions that also uplift marginalized communities, whose well-being is often traded for environmental progress and whose own expertise is often overlooked.

Right Now

Keeler says her role at the Humphrey School has come at the right time in her career. She is energized by her time in the classroom, something she missed in her previous position.

“That was one of the reasons I was excited about coming to the Humphrey School,” she says. She loves how the students are able to transcend traditional academic boundaries. “The students I get to work with here—at the Humphrey School and through CREATE—are truly interdisciplinary thinkers,” she says.

She’s thrilled to be working alongside colleagues and students who support venturing “outside of my disciplinary ‘lane’” and that she’s doing research “that has real-world impact. Work that’s truly useful outside the academy.”

As a scientist moving increasingly toward “the human side of environmental issues,” Keeler is gaining confidence. “My initial feeling was, ‘I can’t do this,’” she admits. Yet she knows there’s more change to come. “We talk in CREATE a lot about a willingness to be transformed by our community partners and by each other as we learn across disciplines, and I’ve had to really embrace that.”

And these days when Keeler, who lives in Northfield, unwinds by mountain biking or hiking near one of the lakes or rivers she grew up cherishing, she is aware that all people deserve to have such opportunities. “I’m not a very serious water recreationist, but I just like being by water,” she says. “Don’t we all?”

Civios podcast: Learn more about Keeler’s research

Susan Maas is a freelance writer and editor.

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