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Scary below the surface

Representatives of 3 environmental advocacy groups highlight some unflattering facts about state waters and their threats to Minnesota water resources

November 1, 2013
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. The Minnesota River adds 50 percent to the volume of the mighty Mississippi at the confluence of the two rivers south of the Twin Cities. And, according to state environmental groups, people should be worried about the state of our waters.

On Thursday, representatives of Environment Minnesota, Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) and Clean Water Action-Minnesota (CWA-M) held a teleconference to draw attention to environmental threats to the state's lakes and streams.

"Halloween is the season to be scared, but Minnesotans shouldn't have to be afraid of swimming and fishing in our lakes and rivers or disturbed by the quality of their drinking water," said Samantha Chadwick, advocate for Environment Minnesota. "Manure and other pollution from agriculture and big industry are making our rivers into a potion of pollution perfect for poisonous drinking water, E. coli and slimy algae blooms."

Chadwick presented a list of 13 scary facts about pollution in state waters, including: high nitrate levels from fertilizer runoff, contamination by E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, toxic algae blooms from phosphorus and nitrogen, industrial pollution, higher than natural rates of sediment in-filling of lakes, invasive species of Asian carp and zebra mussels and microplastic particles in the Great Lakes.

Darrell Gerber, project coordinator for CWA-M, cited loopholes in the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA) of 1976.

"Two Supreme Court decisions weakened the CWA," Gerber said. "And Congress needs to reform TOSCA. The act allows many chemical ingredients in products to remain secret, about 20 percent of the 80,000 chemicals used."

Fact Box


High nitrate levels, unsafe for drinking water, were found in 27 percent of monitored streams and rivers in Minnesota in 2013. High nitrate in drinking water can cause a potentially fatal condition in infants known as "blue baby syndrome." It is estimated that thousands of Minnesota drinking wells are contaminated with too much nitrate. The city of St. Peter spent $18.8 million on water treatment to deal with problems in its water wells.

More than 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution that gets into Minnesota waterways comes from cropland, as a byproduct of fertilizer and manure from the agricultural industry. These cropland sources are exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Minnesota sends 211 tons per year of nitrogen downstream, contributing to the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted area that forms each summer where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf. This summer the dead zone was 5,800 square miles - the size of Connecticut.

About half of Minnesota's waterways are classified "impaired" meaning they don't meet water quality standards and may be unsafe for fishing and swimming. In the most recent list update, 511 water bodies or river segments were added to the impaired list and only 13 were removed.

416 of Minnesota's water impairments are for levels of E. coli and fecal coliform that make the water unsafe for swimming.

527 of Minnesota's water impairments are from phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause algal blooms which cover lakes (and anyone who uses them) with green slime. Some types of algae are toxic and dangerous, like blue green algae that can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory issues or even liver failure.

Industrial facilities dump more than 1.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Minnesota rivers and streams every year.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found 73 percent of smallmouth bass at a site in Lake Pepin showed signs of mutated sexual organs.

1,400 of water bodies tested so far in Minnesota have dangerously high levels of mercury contamination.

Non-native invasive carp species have made their way into Minnesota. Individual fish have now been found in the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. A carcass of the leaping silver carp was found, dead, this summer on a dam just north of Winona. Another alien species taking over Minnesota lakes is the zebra mussel, infesting such popular and iconic waters as Lake Minnetonka.

Source: Environment Minnesota

There's good news though, according to Gerber. Because of public pressure, many retailers are reducing toxic chemicals in products.

John Anfinson from the National Park Service said the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers are coming back in many ways, but there are still significant problems with sediment and pollution, which favor invasive carp at the expense of native species of fish.

"Native predator species rely on vision," Anfinson said. "Polluted rivers make it hard for them to succeed."

Peg Furshong, director of operations for CURE, pointed out Asian carp thrive on algae blooms fed by fertilizer runoff but can't thrive in clean water.

"We do see more farmers willing to sit own and have a conversation," Furshong said. "We worked with Xcel Energy to get the (Granite Falls) Minnesota Falls Dam removed. Now native fish species are getting up river as far as the Granite Falls Dam."

Proposed remedies ranged from environmental tech to legislation. Nitrate runoff can be reduced with biofilters, cover crops and better land management practices. Loopholes in existing laws can be addressed.

But Chadwick said she doesn't believe there is one easy fix.

"Our goal is to use the Halloween holiday to raise awareness," Chadwick said. "We have to step away from the Minnesota nice and address the issue."



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