GRANITE FALLS - Canoeing the Minnesota River, rich in natural beauty as it gently flows through the state's fertile farmlands, immerses the canoeist in nature and masks the unsettling truth that the river is among the most polluted in the nation.
"It's considered the most polluted tributary of the Mississippi River north of St. Louis," Patrick Moore, executive director of CURE, said.
Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), formed in 1992 with a mission to restore, celebrate and protect the upper Minnesota River watershed in an effort to reduce pollutants entering the waterway. The organization, with Moore at the helm, offers free guided canoe tours along the river that aim to raise awareness for the river's beauty and the environmental issues threatening the waterway.
Photo by Phillip Bock
Kate Eggers paddles along the Minnesota River in a canoe provided by CURE.
"It's a gateway to a lot of issues," Moore said. "Fishing, energy, food, agriculture, and the cultural attitudes toward native americans and our history."
CURE has several kayaks and canoes to take interested travelers along area rivers in an effort to get people on the water to see the issues facing the Minnesota River first-hand.
"In order for people to care about something they have to experience it," Moore said.
The top pollutants in the Minnesota River are sediment from farm runoff, nutrients and phosphorus from crop fertilizers, and harmful bacteria from animal waste. CURE has been working with local, regional, and national governments to develop efforts to cut down on these pollutants.
Pollution in the Minnesota River began its escalation in 1950 when farmers began installing tile system in their fields to drain wetlands and create crop land. The tile systems drain sediment and fertilizers into ditches, streams and, eventually, the Minnesota River, Moore said.
"That's why the water is so brown," Moore said. "It's only as clean as its watershed."
According to Moore, farms built too close to flood plains often flood during wet springs, causing pollutants from the fields to be carried away by the river.
"They used to farm right up to the river and their crops would often flood," Moore said. "That's what rivers do; they flood."
As a result, CURE has been lobbying lawmakers to buy back flood prone farmland and revert it back to native prairies. The group also works with farmers to educate them on ways to prevent polluting the river. Farmers are encouraged to place buffers between fields and rivers and to install filter strips that prevent sediment from draining in the water.
"Farmers are a key to the solution to cleaning up the minnesota river," Moore said. "We need to support farmers who grow food in a way that doesn't pollute the water."
In the late 1990s, environmentalist groups like CURE won a victory when lawmakers introduced the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The program provides funding to farmers for the purpose of preserving prairie lands once used for agriculture, with the goal of introducing and encouraging plant life to prevent erosion and provide habitat for wildlife.
The congressman who championed the bill, David Minge, was a former member of the 15-person board of citizens for CURE. As a result of his bill, acres of farmland have been returned to scenic native prairies.
"This was all farmed out at one point," Moore said while canoeing past an expansive prairie. "Now more than 60,000 acres of the Minnesota River Watershed is put back to native prairie land."
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Natural shoreline buffers improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and sediments. Along sections of the upper Minnesota River, farmland has started to retreat back from the flood plains and wildlife is beginning to come back to the region.
"It's a strong wildlife corridor; we started seeing bald eagles coming back" he said. "It's a real success."
For CURE it was a start, but a lot more has to change along the river to stem the rise in pollution. Currently, Moore said, there is a divide among communities along the northern watershed and communities along the southern watershed on how to deal with the pollution.
"If the water coming your way is polluted, there is no incentive," he said of the southern watershed.
CURE has begun initiatives lately to stimulate discussion between upstream communities and downstream communities.
"Right now there is a great divide between upstream and downstream," Moore said. "What we are trying to do is to create a dialog so that we don't have a polarized debate over the implementation of clean water standards."
The more urban communities of the lower river watersheds want to enact more strict regulation on the rural farm communities of the upper watershed. CURE has a goal to spur dialog and find the middle ground. For Moore, incentives for farmers who plant responsibly would be more beneficial than restrictive regulations.
"We are interested in developing the right kind of carrot, not the right kind of stick," he said.
Trying to forge a middle ground between environmentalist, the agricultural base and the urban base is no easy task, but Moore said he is up to the challenge. Positive changes have already begun as a result of the discussions, he said, but he has hopes that future generations will be inspired to continue cleaning up pollution in the Minnesota River.
"Can we grow food without pollution?" Moore said. "That's the challenge to the next generation."