If we really love Minnesota’s sky-blue lakes, if we really care about swimming and canoeing and fishing, we need to do a lot more to protect those waters. And we need to act quickly. Toxic algae blooms, fertilizer run-off, garbage, and mining sediment and run-off threaten Minnesota lakes and rivers and wetlands. Threaten? That’s actually an understatement. “Threaten” sounds like the damage is in the future. It’s not. Minnesota waterways have already been seriously damaged.
Polluting lakes and streams
Every report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency survey of Minnesota lakes and streams brings more bad news. MPR’s excellent coverage of Minnesota waters identifies the biggest problem:
“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 40 percent of the state’s lakes and streams are polluted. Much of that pollution is from soil, fertilizer and other contaminants flowing off farm fields — and cleaning it up is almost solely reliant on the goodwill of farmers. Cropland isn’t regulated as a pollution source.”
Already, reports MPR, “In six far southwestern Minnesota counties there are no lakes considered fishable and swimmable.” Already, one Minnesota city has had to restrict drinking water use because of nitrates in the water. As Bluestem Prairie warned, Fairmont’s water problem “is a wake-up call for prudence about our drinking water.”
Every year, algae covers more lakes, earlier, and nastier. This year, warnings about toxic blue-green algae began in May. Blue-green algae can make animals and people sick, and have even killed animals. Last year, blue-green algae in Lake of the Woods killed Layla, a 4-year-old springer spaniel. MPR reported that she was the 18th dog positively identified as a victim of blue-green algae in the past decade, and that human illnesses have also been recorded.
Not all algae are poisonous, but all of it affects (and reflects) water quality. Both increasing nutrient levels in the waterways and climate change are blamed for increasing amounts and earlier-in-the-summer blooms of algae.
Wetlands and wildlife
Apart from the lakes and streams, Minnesota’s wetlands are also endangered. The MPCA reports finding “elevated levels of phosphorus in 31 percent of our ‘prairie pothole’ wetlands.” That affects the insects and other small critters living in the wetlands, and also the ducks and geese that feed on them. Over 150 years, Minnesota has drained nearly half of our wetlands, and changing water levels negatively affect much of the remaining area. The MPCA finds that “about 80 percent of Minnesota wetlands that have experienced even moderate water alterations now have abundant invasive plants growing in them — permanently replacing the native plant communities.”
Garbage also threatens waterfowl. Ron Meador wrote in MinnPost about a recent study in Nova Scotia that found “a fair amount of metal and an even larger load of plastic” in duck gizzards.
Mining and Minnesota waters
Writing in The Circle, Mordecai Specktor warned about the threats to Minnesota waters from traditional mining — taconite — and from proposed new copper nickel mining, also known as sulfide mining.
Minnesota recently moved to weaken the protection for wild rice beds. The Star Tribune reports that this move may lead to federal intervention:
“Laws passed in 2015 and 2016 that exempt taconite and other industries from a pollution rule aimed at protecting wild rice may ‘strike down’ the state’s authority to implement federal environmental laws, the EPA said.”
The U.S. Forest Service also expressed concern about copper nickel mining in northern Minnesota. The Star Tribune reported:
“Citing the risk of contamination to a pristine watershed from all phases of mining, the Forest Service took the highly unusual step of asking for public comment on the project proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of a giant Chilean mining conglomerate…”
Paula Maccabee, who heads the WaterLegacy environmental group, told Specktor that “regular citizens” often tell her that Minnesota has “such tough regulation and such good enforcement.” But, says Maccabee, that’s not true:
“What we realized several years into this research is that that’s a myth: Minnesota does not enforce pollution control standards.’ And Maccabee added that there are no standards for many new pollutants.”
I grew up on a farm and my family still farms. I know that farmers care about the land and waters. I know that Minnesotans care about our land and waters. Caring is not enough. We need to put in place laws to protect the waters.
It’s like traffic laws. Drivers care about people. They don’t want to run over random children or crash into other cars. But caring is not enough: we still need speed limits and stop signs. Just as we need traffic laws to protect people, we need laws to protect our waters. Time has run out.
Polluting lakes and streams
- Water in Minnesota. MPR. Series page. http://www.mprnews.org/topic/water
- Dan Gunderson. Random acts of conservation: Water quality depends on farmers’ willingness, not regulation. MPR. 5/17/2016. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/05/17/water-buffalo-red-river-agriculture-erosion
- Dan Gunderson. Farmers, scientists seek common ground on going green. MPR. 8/9/2016. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/08/09/environment-farmers-cover-crops-curb-pollution
- Mark Cdechlik. Trouble in the water: Can Minnesota stop polluting its lakes, rivers? MPR, 5/16/2016 http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/05/16/water-can-minnesota-stop-polluting-lakes-rivers
- Mark Steil. Saving Minnesota’s polluted lakes takes science, political will. MPR, 5/20/2016. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/05/20/water-saving-lakes-pollution-with-science-politics
- Sally Jo Sorenson. WRAPS: erosion, stormwater & ag practices dirty water in Yellow Medicine River watershed. Bluestem Prairie, 5/16/2016. http://www.bluestemprairie.com/bluestemprairie/2016/05/wraps-erosion-stormwater-ag-practices-dirty-water-in-yellow-medicine-river-watershed.html
Wetlands and wildlife
- The Threats to Minnesota’s Wetlands, MN Pollution Control Agency. Undated. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/threats-minnesotas-wetlands
- Ron Meador. Like seabirds, our freshwater fowl carry the burdens of throwaway plastics, MinnPost, 8/9/2016 https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2016/08/seabirds-our-freshwater-fowl-carry-burdens-throwaway-plastics
- Blue-green algae and harmful algal blooms. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Undated. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/blue-green-algae-and-harmful-algal-blooms
- Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) Fact Sheet. Minnesota Department of Health, 8/2014. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/hab/hab.html
- Forum News Service. Minnesota agencies warn about potential for toxic blue-green algae. Pioneer Press, 5/30/2106. http://www.twincities.com/2016/05/30/minnesota-blue-green-algae/
- Elizabeth Dunbar. Dogs as sentinels: Blue-green algae brings toxic mystery to Minn. waters. MPR. 5/24/2016. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/05/24/water-toxic-algae-dogs-climate-change
- Ben Guarino. ‘We’ve primed the system’: Why blue-green algae blooms seem increasingly common. Washington Post, 7/25/2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/07/25/weve-primed-the-system-why-toxic-blue-green-algae-blooms-seem-increasingly-common/
Mining and Minnesota waters
- Moredecai Specktor. Protecting Our Water, The Circle, 8/5/2016 http://thecirclenews.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=16&Itemid=39
- Stephanie Hemphill. Minnesota revises proposed standards to protect wild rice from sulfate. MPR, 7/20/2016. https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2016/07/minnesota-revises-proposed-standards-protect-wild-rice-sulfate-pollution
- Josephine Marcotty. EPA presses Minnesota over laws exempting taconite firms from wild rice rules. Star Tribune, 7/18/2016. http://www.startribune.com/epa-warns-minnesota-over-laws-exempting-taconite-firms-from-wild-rice-rules/387187001/
- Josephine Marcotty. U.S. Forest Service balks at copper-nickel mining plan near BWCA. Star Tribune, 6/13/2016. http://www.startribune.com/u-s-forest-service-balks-at-copper-nickel-mining-plan-near-bwca/382811711/