More Minnesota lakes, rivers added to impaired list

Bob Schmitz
Preparing for a paddle on the Mississippi River. The stretch of the river that runs through Minneapolis is listed as impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is adding another 500 lakes and stretches of river to its list of impaired waters.

This new list brings the total number of impaired rivers and lakes to more than 3,600. Impaired means the waters have excess nitrogen, phosphorus, mercury, bacteria or other pollutant to support activities like swimming or fishing, or even to provide healthy habitats for fish and wildlife.

Listing these lakes and rivers is the first step in attempts to fix them. But some critics say the state isn't doing what it takes to clean up the pollution. Once they're on the list, the state works with local governments and citizen groups to design clean-up plans.

So far, researchers have found that about 40 percent of Minnesota's waters are impaired.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to update their list of impaired waters every two years. Minnesota is one-fifth of the way through surveying its nearly 12,000 lakes and nearly 70,000 miles of rivers and streams.

In the nearly 20 years these efforts have been under way, about 900 clean-up plans have been approved or are being developed. But only 15 water bodies have been removed from the list because of actual clean-up.

The process is a slow one, said Glenn Skuta, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's water monitoring manager.

"We have to be cautious and remember, these water bodies did not become impaired overnight, and they're not going to be cleaned up overnight either," Skuta said.

The problem is, government regulation has picked off the low-hanging fruit of pollution clean-up. Factories and wastewater treatment plants have to obtain permits, so they can be held to stricter and stricter standards.

The problem is with other kinds of pollution, so called non-point sources, such as runoff from suburban lawns and farm fields, said Gene Merriam, a former DNR commissioner and state senator who now heads the Freshwater Society.

"With the non-point sources, they are in large measure dependent on voluntary action. The question is why do we expect that's going to work," Merriam said.

Voluntary action so far includes buffer strips along waterways to filter run-off. Farmers can have some of the costs paid by federal and state conservation programs.

And this is becoming more frustrating for the groups that do face regulations.

Craig Johnson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, points to a clean-up plan for the South Mississippi River expected to be released in the next few weeks. He says it will require cities to invest money to clean up stormwater systems and wastewater treatment plants, and will impose no requirements on the agricultural sector.

"Cities contribute about 5 to 6 percent of the load and the rest comes from other sources," Johnson said. "We'll be required to spend $843 million and ag will be given a goal of reducing their load but no requirements."

But Skuta is optimistic. He said because the agency decided to tackle the problem by focusing on entire watersheds, rather than individual lakes and stretches of river, the research has helped identify where clean-up work should be targeted.

"If we can focus our resources, our time, our money, our people, on the areas where we can get the most bang for the buck, we'll be quicker and more efficient about actually seeing improvements," Skuta said.

The agency has ramped up its efforts with the addition of money from the Legacy Amendment. By 2018 they expect to have studies completed on all of Minnesota's lakes and rivers.