MARSHALL - Minnesota has come a long way in helping to clean up its air, soil and water, but it can't stop there. Protecting natural resources is a job for the long term, said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine.
"We've radically improved water quality from 40 years ago, but there's still a long way to go," Stine said.
Stine was in Marshall on Tuesday and discussed topics including water quality standards and MPCA permit processes.
Surface water, like lakes and rivers, is one of the major areas under the MPCA's protection. In some ways, Minnesota has made great strides toward restoring the quality of its waters, Stine said.
The federal Clean Water Act, which marks its 40th anniversary this year, put forward a vision for American lakes and rivers to be "fishable and swimmable," Stine said.
"That's a very aspirational goal," he said, but there has been some good progress.
A lot of the progress has been made at single-point sources of pollution, like feedlots and wastewater treatment plants, Stine said. For example, the levels of phosphorus in wastewater around Minnesota was reduced 49 percent between 2000 and 2010, he said. High phosphorus levels encourage the growth of algae in lakes and rivers.
"Forty years ago, there were no permits or regulations in place for that," Stine said. But many cities and businesses along Minnesota watersheds have stepped up to do their part, and it made a difference.
Stine said the MPCA is also in the middle of a 10-year monitoring cycle to determine water quality in each of Minnesota's 81 watersheds. A little less than half of the watersheds have been tested so far, and 34 watersheds have restoration projects under way.
Actually cleaning up or restoring lakes and streams is a slow process, however. Stine said water clarity is improving in about a quarter of Minnesota lakes, while most haven't made any significant changes.
There are many challenges that remain for reducing water pollution. Stine said reducing phosphorus levels from more diffuse sources, like agricultural land and runoff from urban areas, is a difficult task. In those cases, he said, "It's hard to define at an individual level," but the combined effect of many individuals can harm waterways.
Stine said there are some options being pursued to help improve water quality. An agricultural water quality certification program is being developed for farmers, which might help offer an incentive for following good water quality practices, he said.
"The challenge is always in developing a program that does improve water quality, and that works for farmers," Stine said.
The MPCA has worked to streamline its permit process as much as possible, Stine said, with a goal of issuing permits within 150 days. Water-related permits make up the majority of the applications the agency receives, he said.
Stine said the MPCA also has a high compliance rate for its permits, which is a positive sign.