State regulators launch big Mississippi water monitoring project

A water.
The Mississippi River flows through the St. Anthony Lock and Dam on the last day before the temporary closure of the Stone Arch Bridge on April 13. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will test water along all 650 miles of the river within the state’s borders this year.
Nicole Neri for MPR News | File

State regulators gathered at the Mississippi River on Earth Day to announce a big undertaking: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will test water along all 650 miles of the river within the state’s borders this year.

It’s the first time the state has tested the whole river in one year. Usually, regulators section out one stretch each year to monitor. 

MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler said this will be a valuable snapshot. 

“The flowing water is connected all the way through, so getting a snapshot in time of the entirety of the stretch allows us to have a better understanding,” Kessler said. “It will help us understand where pollutants are coming from, how we can prevent pollution and where work is needed to cleanup pollution.”

The agency will take water and aquatic life samples from more than 50 locations between the headwaters at Lake Itasca and the Iowa border. They’ll test water for temperature, transparency and pollutant levels. For the first time, the agency is running tests for “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, in the Mississippi River.

Staff will also be collecting fish and insect samples to monitor for abnormalities, which can indicate health problems in the river. That’s an intensive project, involving electrofishing, netting and turning over boulders to look for larvae in the sediment.

The MPCA is funding the monitoring project with the Clean Water Fund. The research will help the agency decide where to focus resources for pollution prevention and cleanup in the coming years. 

The Mississippi River headwaters at sunset in 2020.
The Mississippi River headwaters at sunset in 2020.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

All of this testing, Kessler said, will help keep Minnesota’s drinking water clean. And, it supports the state’s $10 billion outdoor recreation industry. 

Among the state’s avid water-goers is Devin Brown, who joined agency staff for the announcement of this summer’s monitoring project. At the end of May, Brown will set off to solo-kayak the entire length of the Mississippi — if she crosses mile marker zero as planned, she’ll be the first Black woman to paddle the river’s 2,300 miles.

Brown said she hopes to see more people out on a clean, healthy river.

“The Mississippi River is our drinking water source, it nourishes the crops that feed our families, it’s the current that powers our homes, and it should be a place where we congregate,” she said. “Take some time to engage with the river for the health of our community.” 

On Earth Day, Kessler took a ceremonial first water sample, and showed off the testing stick that’s used in waterways across Minnesota. 

She noted that the agency is still looking for volunteers to take samples in lakes, streams and rivers near them, for any Minnesotans who want to get a little closer to their water.

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