Trouble in the Water

Minnesota's identity is closely linked with the state's beautiful and abundant water resources. But some 40 percent of surface waters in the Land of 10,000 Lakes are polluted and more lakes and streams are added to the list with each survey.

Some of the pollution is toxic enough to kill dogs, but there's little state or federal regulators can do to curb the major threat to water quality: Food production.

Trouble in the water: Can Minnesota stop polluting its lakes, rivers?

Spring comes to the Whitewater River
Bushes begin to bloom as water flows in the south branch of the Whitewater River near Crystal Springs, Minn., in April 2016. The area was the site of a large fish kill last July. The fish kill impacted a 6-mile stretch of the south branch of the Whitewater River, and killed upward of 10,000 fish.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Jeff Broberg had long agonized about the health of the Whitewater River. But when 10,000 fish died suddenly and inexplicably in the river last summer after heavy rains, alarms went off.

The Whitewater, southeastern Minnesota's iconic trout stream, is known nationally for its pristine beauty and fishing. Yet the rains had turned it, temporarily, into a kill zone.

An environmental consultant who fishes the river, Broberg worried farm pollution could strip the Whitewater of its trout. State officials failed to identify a specific cause for last summer's fish kill and instead suggested that a mix of "biological, chemical and environmental conditions" could have been to blame.

Broberg believes what happened on the Whitewater should set off alarms across Minnesota. Regulators, he said, are not protecting water from increasing farm threats.

"This is a dramatic example because it's clean water. It's a trout stream," he said. "I really fear that we've gotten to the point now where the industrialization of the agricultural process is just taking over the entire ecology."

For Broberg and others, the massive fish kill on the Whitewater was the latest sign of serious, widespread trouble in Minnesota's waters. Some 40 percent of the lakes and streams are polluted, with much of that centered in southern Minnesota's farm country. In six far southwestern Minnesota counties there are no lakes considered fishable and swimmable.

—Mark Zdechlik | Read the rest of the story

Random acts of conservation: Water quality depends on farmers' willingness, not regulation

Farmland near Rothsay, Minn.
A culvert provides a frame for farmer Jared Nordick's land near Rothsay, Minn., in April 2016. Agriculture is a big source of pollution, but some Minnesota farmers are working to clean up dirty water and reduce the amount of nitrates reaching state waterways.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

Farming is a big part of Minnesota's clean water problem.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 40 percent of the state's lakes and streams are polluted. Much of that pollution is from soil, fertilizer and other contaminants flowing off farm fields — and cleaning it up is almost solely reliant on the goodwill of farmers. Cropland isn't regulated as a pollution source.

On the national level, the Federal Clean Water Act regulates pollution flowing out of pipes, known as point source pollution. But contaminants flowing off of farm fields — non-point source pollution — are exempt from regulations.

With little authority to compel farmers to adopt clean water practices, state and federal agencies rely on a voluntary approach. As a result, farming practices can be dramatically different from one field to the next.

—Dan Gunderson | Read the rest of the story


Should farmers or city pay to clean the water? Iowa may decide

Drain tile emptying in a drainage ditch
Drain tile emptying in a drainage ditch near Sac County, Iowa.
Clay Masters for MPR News

The water gushing from a big galvanized pipe in this rural patch of northwest Iowa is filled with runoff from area farms. No one here would think to drink it.

Some 200 miles downstream, however, Des Moines officials say that same potentially toxic farm drainage flows toward their city and its citizens. Des Moines filters it, but city leaders say it's become increasingly costly to keep farm field nitrate out of the urban water system and that their customers shouldn't have to pay to hold back that pollution.

The Des Moines Water Works is now suing 10 rural Iowa drainage districts, arguing that farm runoff should fall under federal codes regulating water quality and human health. If that happens, it could shift the costs of filtering farm effluent directly onto rural Iowa and its farmers. A trial is set for June 2017.

Iowa farmers say the added expense could ruin them. But the suit could bring historic change to water regulation and farm economics across the country, including Minnesota.

—Clay Masters | Read the rest of the story


Northern Minn.'s St. Louis River comes back to life, but it's still not in the clear

Sturgeon from the St. Louis River.
Wisconsin and Minnesota DNR staff worked together in late April to capture dozens of sturgeon and implant them with various trackers to track the return of sturgeon to the St. Louis River.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

When Gary Bubalo was a kid growing up on the far western side of Duluth, he and his friends would walk down to the St. Louis River at a place they called "Coolerator Hill," where an old air conditioning plant sat along the shore.

It was the 1960s, and the river was so polluted at the time — from nearly a century's worth of paper milling and other industry — that his parents warned him not to venture too close. But some kids did anyway. "They were almost like social outcasts," he said, "because they swam in the river."

At Coolerator Hill, the river widens into a huge estuary — it looks more like a lake than a river — before it empties into Lake Superior. "I remember one kid caught a fish once," Bubalo said. "He came up the hill and he was showing everybody, and it was like an alien from a[nother] planet or something — you could actually catch a fish in this thing!"

Bubalo is a financial advisor now. His dad worked at the U.S. Steel mill on the St. Louis until it closed in 1972, the year Gary graduated from high school. He remembers seeing the pipe where the plant discharged its waste, like a "constant dirty drain running right into the river."

Around the same time, farther upstream where the river tumbles down jagged rocks through Jay Cooke State Park, "you couldn't go down there and hang around the swinging bridge, because it stunk," recalled Jack Ezell, who grew up in Cloquet. He's now manager of planning and technical services for the area's sanitary district.

It's hard to imagine those scenes today. While the list of toxins found in the river decades later is still shocking — including PCB, dioxin and pesticides like DDT, dieldrin and toxaphene — the river has come back to life.

— Dan Kraker | Read the rest of the story

Saving Minnesota's polluted lakes takes science, political will

Dan Livdahl tests the clarity of Lake Okabena.
Dan Livdahl, District Administrator for the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed drops a Secchi disc in Lake Okabena to test the water clarity. "Human nature is always to see our activities as ok or relatively benign and to point the finger at somebody else," said Livdahl, "The fact is, everybody within the watershed has an effect. All of our actions add, right here."
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Every time it rains on Worthington, it means trouble for Okabena Lake.

When it rains, soil and nutrients wash down from the town and from thousands of acres of farmland nearby. The impact on the lake is immediate and startling.

"We can have the sediment coming into the lake turning the lake a brown color, and not have it clear up for the rest of the season after one big rain event," said Dan Livdahl, who heads the local watershed district. "Our water clarity will go from pretty good to terrible."

It's a frustrating transformation — one Livdahl and his colleagues around Minnesota witness each summer. The green scum that spreads across thousands of Minnesota's contaminated lakes is the legacy of decades of pollution from cities and farms.

Those lakes can be rescued, but it's a massive undertaking that requires farmers, firms and homeowners to change the way they do business. Cooperation and compromise helped save Lake Shaokatan, 90 miles north of Worthington.

At Okabena, though, it's still a work in progress. The lake is a recreational hub that's become a hotspot for national windsurfing competitions. Those with a stake in Okabena agree the lake needs help and there have been small measures of improvement, but no breakthroughs.

—Mark Steil | Read the rest of the story

From septics to sewers on Rainy Lake's south shore

Black Bay on Rainy Lake
There are thousands of islands to explore in Voyageurs National Park. This aerial view shows Black Bay on Rainy Lake.
Photo courtesy of Voyageurs National Park

The water that fills Ken Henrickson's toilet bowl is pumped directly from the lake he lives on, and when he flushes, it goes back to the lake.

"I'm not sure if it's a good system or not," he said last month.

Henrickson lives along the rocky shore of Rainy Lake, which forms part of Minnesota's border with Canada, in the state's far north.

Henrickson's is one of the half-million Minnesota homes from which wastewater flows into buried septic tanks — systems that are maintained, and often ignored, by homeowners, not professional engineers. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates one in every five septic systems across the state is failing.

The water off Henrickson's piece of shoreline is laced with sewage — likely his own, and that of about 200 neighbors. There are at least that many failing septic systems in a 15-mile stretch from Henrickson's neighborhood east to Voyageurs National Park.

"Nobody says too much about it," Henrickson said, "but yeah, we know it's there."

In Henrickson's neighborhood, the impact and cost of failing septic systems is front and center. But across the rest of the state, both cost and impact are less clear.

— John Enger | Read the rest of the story


Dogs as sentinels: Blue-green algae brings toxic mystery to Minn. waters

Spot plays in the water.
After last year's tragic experience, Jack and Terry Lundbohm, here on Birch Beach in Lake of the Woods Minn., in May 2016, have decided to keep their new dog Spot out of the water during the summer algae bloom. Spot loves being in the water just as much as Layla did, but the couple doesn't want to put him at risk.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Layla was an energetic 4-year-old springer spaniel just reaching her prime. Jack Lundbohm figures she would have been the perfect dog for last fall's grouse-hunting season.

But Layla died one day last August, after splashing along the shore of Lake of the Woods for nearly two hours. She had been playing with Lundbohm's 5-year-old grandson, Gus, and not long after the boy took a break from throwing sticks and tennis balls, Layla "was not only dead but as rigid as a bronze statue," Lundbohm said.

She was the 18th dog in Minnesota to have died from suspected blue-green algae poisoning since the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency started tracking the issue a little more than a decade ago.

Last summer, the state recorded its first two cases of human illness linked to toxic algae.

Sickness and death from blue-green algae are troubling, though rare. But the lake conditions that increase the chances of seeing both are not.

Across Minnesota each summer, sky-blue waters transform into pea-green soup, a sign of possible toxins. It's happening more often — and farther north — than ever before, suggesting that climate change is a key player.

— Elizabeth Dunbar | Read the rest of the story


In battle to keep lead from water, St. Paul digs deep

A section of lead pipe from St.Paul water system.
A old section of lead pipe pulled from the St. Paul water system is an example of the lead pipe system that is being replaced by copper pipe due to concerns about lead posing a threat to children. St. Paul is replacing the lead pipes in the city water system that lead from the sidewalk to the property line, but replacing the pipes that lead into the home are the homeowner's responsibility.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Tony Palumbo's water utility crew had opened a hole 7 feet deep under the sidewalk outside a small rental house in the city's Frogtown neighborhood when their target came into view.

Barely visible among the tangle of roots and dark soil sat an old lead pipe, about as big around as a quarter, one of 14,000 lead service lines the water utility owns. The pipe, likely 100 years old, was in fine shape. But Palumbo's team planned to rip it out anyway, replace it with a copper pipe, and move on to the next one.

Palumbo and his crew are the most visible signs of a decades-long quest in St. Paul to get lead out of the city's drinking water.

In years past, St. Paul struggled mightily to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency standards. The EPA at one point forced the city to remove 7 percent of its lead service lines for three years in a row. But the effort paid off. City lead levels are now below federal limits and officials expect to have the last lead pipes out within 20 years.

—Lorna Benson | Read the rest of the story