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Cleaning Minnesota's water: Places to watch

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Track Minnesota's performance at maintaining and improving its water quality by watching these key locations. 

MINNESOTA RIVER

Parts of the Minnesota River — which stretches for more than 300 miles, from Big Stone Lake in western Minnesota to near Fort Snelling, where it joins the Mississippi River — have been determined by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to be "impaired" for a variety of reasons, ranging from high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and sediment to excess nutrients.

Because the river runs through a heavily agricultural part of the state, it has become a lightning rod for debate over just how much responsibility farming bears for degraded water quality. When the MPCA determines that a river doesn't meet clean water standards, a process kicks in to figure out where pollution is coming from and how much it needs to be reduced. This is called the river's "Total Maximum Daily Load" or TMDL.

There are 34 TMDLs in various stages of completion on the Minnesota River. One of the most controversial and extensive involves "turbidity" or suspended particles in the main river and some of its tributaries. While farmers argue that only a fraction of sediment in the water can be traced directly to farmland, environmentalists argue that they are sending too much water into the river through tile lines, thus carving out the banks and contributing to sediment loads in a different way.

The stakes in the battle include the fate of Lake Pepin, which is filling with sediment, and productive farm acres at a time when corn and soybean prices are extremely high.

Even so, "There still will be a TMDL based on science," said Trevor Russell, watershed program director for Friends of the Mississippi River. "The Minnesota River basin will be assigned a [significant] reduction in sediment."

The recent state government shutdown slowed progress on the report, which was originally due in 2010, according to the MPCA's Larry Gunderson. He said a draft should be available by September or October.

TO WATCH: Russell thinks the TMDLs being prepared for the Minnesota could help target where water conservation efforts — and precious dollars from the state's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment — will do the most good. "We're advocating for project priority list," said Russell. "We've spoken with the governor about it and the agriculture commissioner. Nobody wants to waste money right now."


LAKE VOLNEY

In the 1960s, the water in Lake Volney in Le Sueur County was clear all summer long, said Steve Pany, an accountant who is treasurer of the Lake Volney Association. In fact, he took swimming lessons here as a kid and still has the American National Red Cross certificate to prove it.

Now, the seasonal cabins that dot the small, 283-acre lake have been joined by large suburban-style homes with rolling lawns. Most of the surrounding land that drains into the lake is used for farming. Lake Volney — designated as "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — is so full of phosphorus the algae starts early each summer and has included deadly cyanobacteria, known as blue-green algae. A dog drank from the lake 10 years ago and died. The water quality became so poor, in fact, that in 1998, Pany and his brothers sold the family cabin their parents had bought three decades earlier.

Lake Volney
Lake homes and cabins dot the shore of Lake Volney in Le Sueur County in southern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Though Pany no longer owns property on the lake, he's still attached to it. He fishes here and, with the lake association, voluntarily works to clean up the water. The group has made a difference. It partnered with the county to hire a "lake detective" to assess Volney's patterns and problems, to move the public beach up from the lake and install a vegetative buffer and portable toilet and to install new culverts, which connect to Gorman Lake and eventually the Cannon River. It hired a seiner to remove approximately 100,000 pounds of carp from the lake, encouraged residents to install rain gardens and agitated for local farmers to build more buffers. 

Now, when an association member lowers a Secchi disk, which measures water clarity, he can see an average of 12 feet down. A few decades ago, he would have been able to see just over three feet. "We've come a long way toward having the lake usable during the summer," said Pany.

TO WATCH: The association is trying to find a way to buy a piece of property to expand a wetland, considered the "missing link" to reducing nutrients that flow into the lake.


DULUTH

Controlling water during storms in Duluth is a difficult enterprise. Not only does the city contend with steep terrain but its soil is loaded with clay, which means it doesn't absorb water well and is highly erodible. Stormwater flows fiercely, sometimes even overwhelming the city's sanitary sewer system (a problem being addressed with several new overflow tanks), and is routed as much as possible through underground lines leading in myriad directions, including to Amity Creek, on the city's east side.

Amity Creek
Amity Creek flows through the east side of Duluth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

With the creek's volume in mind, the City of Duluth worked with scientists from the University of Minnesota Duluth and others to fix a decades-old washout that had been sending loads of sediment downstream toward Lake Superior. The project was partly funded by a $100,000 grant from Ron Weber, a former Duluthian who made his fortune importing Rapala fishing lures.

"Weber money funded the engineering design and the city brought equipment and people," said U of M Duluth freshwater scientist Rich Axler. "The city was a critical partner in this and they brought it to our attention. City public works staff really pushed hard for a couple of years to get the resources for the project. It's great when you are asking for resources all the time and then actually get them. It's nice to have a stakeholder partnership work as this one did."

That's just one example of how Duluth collaborates to solve water-related problems. For almost a decade, the city has been part of an informal group called the Regional Stormwater Protection Team, which includes a long list of partners — nearby cities, St. Louis County, the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the university and others. Mainly the group focuses on educational efforts, such as environmental workshops for snow plow drivers and the people who maintain turf in the parks during summers.

The big objective with stormwater in Duluth is to slow it, settle out its sediment, and even cool it so it's less harmful to the fish that live in the streams. "We are trying to smooth out the spikes," said Duluth project coordinator Chris Kleist. "We are trying to slow the water down. It might be the same volume, but it will be released over a period of time. We're trying to create more of a natural runoff situation."

TO WATCH: The city, the U of M Duluth and others collaborated recently on a neighborhood study that showed how rain gardens and barrels improve Duluth's stormwater. Kleist would like to expand the effort, perhaps citywide.


POMME DE TERRE RIVER

The Pomme de Terre is the northernmost tributary of the Minnesota River and runs for more than 100 miles through several southwestern Minnesota counties and past towns, farms, meadows and a cluster of University of Minnesota wind turbines near Morris.

The lower stretch of the river has been designated as "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for "turbidity," or suspended particles, and fecal coliform bacteria. Once it's been determined that a river doesn't meet clean water standards, a process kicks in to figure out where pollution is coming from and how much it needs to be reduced. This is called the river's "Total Maximum Daily Load" or TMDL.

These documents are often controversial because they tend to assign blame. A draft TMDL related to turbidity was completed in January of 2010, noting that "Sixty-six percent of the entire watershed is cultivated land; in the impaired segment, 84 percent is cultivated." 

Another TMDL has been completed for fecal coliform bacteria and locals are trying to get funding to implement improvements.

With the aim of including a wider range of people in the changes afoot on the Pomme de Terre, the Montevideo-based group Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) organized a canoe paddle in July. It wasn't your average pleasure outing to be sure, but neither was it a harangue about the problems of the river and what must be done about them. Instead, the goal was to build familiarity and fondness for fellow canoeists and the Pomme de Terre itself.

Though none of the invited farmers attended, the group included students, professors, government officials, environmentalists, several Spanish-speaking families with ties to the local Riverview dairy, along with a Riverview human resources manager.

"Everyone is at the edge of his circle" and trying to find common ground, said CURE's executive director Patrick Moore, during a round of handshakes and introductions.

TO WATCH: There are changes afoot to how water is managed in the watershed by farmers and city dwellers alike.


CROW WING COUNTY

Crow Wing County, the heart of Minnesota's cabin country, has been criticized in recent years for laxity in the way it manages lakefront development. Yet, in March, the county adopted a land use ordinance that has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the state. It's not perfect and some specific provisions seem to step backward — one allows resorts to have more impervious surfaces that foster rapid runoff; another allows guest cabins on standard lots.

Wetlands
Wetlands installed by a cabin owner on Pelican Lake provide a buffer to keep rain from running into the lake.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

But taken as a whole, the ordinance is viewed as a leap forward and a good example of a local community taking action to address runoff, a diffuse and hard-to-regulate pollution source. 

Paul Radomski, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who served as technical advisor on the ordinance, said, "I thought they did a good job of bringing the science into it. Relatively speaking, looking across the state, it's very progressive."

The new zoning code applies to anyone building a new cabin or seeking a permit or variance to make a change. If lots have more than 15 percent impervious surfaces, applicants must submit a storm water plan to adequately manage a one-inch rain event. If they have 20 percent or more (up to a maximum 25 percent), applicants must create buffers along the water line. The ordinance also increases the minimum lot size and setbacks for septic systems.

It's modeled on a set of new, more restrictive  statewide shoreline standards, drafted in part by Radomski, which was rejected by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty on his way out of office.

Because of the zoning changes in Crow Wing County, "They will do a better job of managing runoff from lake and river lots which will reduce pollution," Radomski said.  "On a site-by-site basis, this will have an impact."

TO WATCH: The county has set a goal this summer of reducing phosphorus entering its waters by 50 pounds. While this is a small portion of the overall total, county land services supervisor Chris Pence said the fact that there is a goal at all is a "huge step forward."


WILLMAR

In a square white hut next to a lush cornfield near Willmar, a web of hoses, wires, water samplers and meters is examining the runoff from Kim Gorans' farm, one of a half dozen "Discovery Farms" around the state.

As water is pumped from the land through the automated monitoring station, detection equipment looks for phosphorus, nitrate, fecal coliform bacteria and a handful of other potentially troublesome agents. What it finds is contributing to the debate surrounding the role of farming in water pollution and the role of farmers in doing something about it.

Gorans is a co-owner of the 4,000-acre farm, one of the largest privately-held turkey operations in the country. With 60 turkey barns, he said, "We raise about 45 million pounds of turkey per year."

Kim Gorans
Kim Gorans farms near Willmar and was eager to have the runoff from his land analyzed by researchers.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

For decades, the Gorans family has applied nutrient-rich turkey litter to their corn and soybean fields as fertilizer. Gorans, a second-generation farmer, said that whenever there was a fish kill in nearby Lake Wakanda, where the farm sends its runoff, locals pointed the finger at his operation, accusing him of polluting the water. It wasn't lost on Gorans that the city of Willmar also sends stormwater runoff into the lake.

To determine the farm's culpability, Gorans called University of Minnesota soil and water researcher John Moncrief and asked him to set up the monitoring project. Said Moncrief, "I told him, 'This might go against you. There may be gobs coming off the land.' But he wanted the data to know."

Gorans' farm became part of Discovery Farms Minnesota, a program run by the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, which was formed in 2008 by the state's major farm organizations. Headed by Warren Formo, the group aims to add new data to the existing body of science — which appears to be driving toward more stringent environmental accountability for farmers — some collected on a hyper-local basis through the program. Formo would like to have a dozen Discovery Farms, all "typical farms for their areas," each evaluated for six to eight years.

On Kim Gorans' property, Moncrief has drawn some conclusions about field runoff and how it compares to stormwater flowing from the city of Willmar, which he is also monitoring. By his estimate, the city is putting more sediment, phosphorus and other pollutants per acre into Lake Wakanda than is Gorans. The only exception is nitrate, which is six times higher for the farm. (MPCA stormwater specialist Bruce Wilson thinks the "summary numbers look quite high for the urban" but has been unable to review the underlying data in order to "kick the tires and make sense of it.")

Meanwhile, Gorans, who is taking steps to address the nitrate in his runoff, feels vindicated. His farm isn't entirely exonerated, but nor, he said, is the problem exactly what people thought it was. "Fecal coliform levels are higher from the city," he said. "They believed it was nothing, but it was far from nothing."

TO WATCH: As the debate heats up over whether farmers should be held more accountable for pollutants in the state's rivers and streams, data from the Discovery Farms program will no doubt come into play.

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