Getting to clean water: Complex problem, no easy solutions

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Whitney Clark pours Mississippi water into a tube to monitor water clarity.
Friends of the Mississippi River executive director Whitney Clark pours water from the Mississippi River into a tube used to monitor water clarity at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

If you're looking for one place that best illustrates the challenges facing Minnesota's water, paddle a canoe just past Pike Island, near Fort Snelling, where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers flow together.

On a clear day, you can see a line in the water. On one side is the clear, coffee-colored Mississippi. On the other, the milky waters of the Minnesota, laden with sediment and pollutants from the agricultural land it flows through.

"It's like somebody poured milk in the river," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River.

Minnesota has made strides in recent decades when it comes to improving water quality. But evidence shows there's still a long way to go.

The confluence of the Minnesota River, on left, and the Mississippi.
The confluence of the Minnesota River, on left, and the Mississippi in an undated photo.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Forty percent of the state's lakes and streams are polluted, and many aren't safe for swimming or fishing.

Three out of four Minnesotans rely on ground water for drinking. But in many areas, it's contaminated with nitrates from fertilizer, animal waste or human sewage.

Current cleanup efforts are expected to result in a 6 to 8 percent improvement in water quality by 2034. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton says that's not enough. He has proposed a goal of 25 percent improvement by 2025.

"If you look at the map of Minnesota and some of the degradation of water quality, to say we're only going to improve it by 25 percent seems to be really inadequate, which it is," Dayton said. "But it's certainly a lot better than 6 to 8 percent, or even less."

Erosion cuts away the shoreline of the Mississippi River.
Erosion cuts away the shoreline of the Mississippi River near it's confluence with the Minnesota River, seen on July 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Earlier this year, Dayton announced a series of town hall meetings to raise public awareness and generate discussion about Minnesota's water quality challenges. The first town hall is Monday in Rochester.

But how to solve such an immense and complex problem is a difficult question. And there's much debate over whether voluntary programs that help landowners protect water are doing enough, or if tougher regulations are needed.

Environmental groups have long said that more needs to be done to reduce the impact of runoff from agricultural fields. Farmers have been largely exempt from the federal Clean Water Act.

Trevor Russell, water program director for Friends of the Mississippi, points to a recent report from the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center that recommends strategies like better regulation of farm drainage systems and moving away from planting corn and soybeans to perennial crops.

Friends of the Mississippi River Water program director Trevor Russell
Friends of the Mississippi River Water program director Trevor Russell
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We can't have just annual row crops where you've got barren soil for eight or nine months out of the year where sediment and nutrients are leaching off," Russell said. "You need to have diversified cropping systems where you've got green, continuous living cover on the landscape for most of the year in most of the places."

Russell wants to see the state help develop markets for perennial crops like alfalfa and switchgrass that help hold the soil in place year round.

Harold Wolle, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said farmers want to be part of the solution to water quality, and many are open to trying cover crops. But Wolle says they also need to earn a living.

"We need to grow crops that offer an economic return," Wolle said. "Corn and soybeans are the economic leaders in southern and southwest Minnesota because they're adapted to our climate here and our soils. They grow well here."

Dayton said it's not helpful to single out farming as the sole source of Minnesota's water problems.

"This is about all of us," he said. "It's about the fact that MnDOT salt and sanding contaminates water in the metro area. The fact that golf course runoff contaminates water in suburban areas. It's about every responsibility that everybody has."

Water is released from a tube until a pattern can be read.
Water is let out of the tube until an observer standing above can make out a black and white pattern on the bottom.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Monday's town hall is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Heintz Commons at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Nine more meetings will take place this summer and fall in Marshall, Mankato, Crookston, St. Cloud, Ely, Bemidji, Minneapolis and Burnsville.