Troubled Waters: Bridging our concern over Minnesota’s lakes and rivers to necessary action

An algae bloom on Little Rock Lake // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

An algae bloom on Little Rock Lake // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Minnesotans love to extol the virtues of our 10,000 shimmering lakes and remind outsiders that we really have closer to 12,000. But we’re also laboring under some seriously mistaken myths, ones that put off acknowledging the full breadth of problems facing our prized lakes, no matter how many we have.

First, we don’t have as much water as we think (“the water illusion”), and the faux feeling of abundance promotes laxity about the need to conserve and protect.

Second, while most think we have high-quality water, in fact, most farmland lakes already are polluted beyond salvation and 90 percent of those tested have elevated levels of mercury, a toxin that’s taken up by the very fish we eat.

Third, many popular lakes in central Minnesota are in serious peril, so much so that without urgent policy attention—and lots of spending—their condition will continue to degrade. We love our lakes, but we’re loving them to death at a rate that’s faster than any of us want to think.

But it’s not just our lakes.

Groundwater is being tainted by nitrates caused by improper use of fertilizers that farmers spray onto cropland in a strained attempt to fix nitrogen-starved soils. The nitro depletion is made worse, in turn, by rows and rows of corn and soybean monocultures where diversified prairie grasses and grazing animals once naturally nourished the land. Tens of thousands of swamps and potholes that provided remarkable habitat for wildlife and natural filters, have been drained to make more cropland.

The convergence of crops, field and drainage creek // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The convergence of crops, field and drainage creek // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Ten percent of Minnesota’s private wells already exceed health-based nitrate standards, and another 540 have elevated levels. A dozen or more small towns in southwestern Minnesota are raising utility fees to pay for expensive reverse-osmosis systems to make town water safe.

Groundwater is being depleted, showing up as lower lake levels (i.e. White Bear Lake). Too, the rapid growth of ethanol plants that turn a quarter of Minnesota’s massive corn crop into fuel is gulping ungodly amounts of water (each ethanol plant consumes thousands of gallons each hour), that draw down underground reservoirs and sometimes force those nearby to drill deeper wells.

Rivers and streams suffer, so much so that the state lists 3,128 segments as seriously despoiled. The Minnesota River collects highly-contaminated farmland waste before its murky stew blends with the Mississippi at Fort Snelling, and the north-flowing Red River is so gunked up that it helps expand an oxygen-free dead zone in Lake Winnipeg.

But a bit of good news is that water quality remains quite good in a swath of northern lakes, from Red Lake through Leech and into the Arrowhead. The hope, of course, is they’ll stay that way, but even those waterways are showing signs of stress.

We are aware of the problems we face, but officials are taking only the most preliminary actions. Voters have twice amended the Minnesota state constitution to raise tens of millions of dollars through the State Lottery and to expand the sales tax, giving the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources, among others, the funding to map the extent of problems, their causes, and possible cures. Sizing up any problem is necessary, of course. But frankly, quite enough is now known so that more of those millions should be spent on solutions.

For lakes, we know the sources of contaminants and how to remove them. Water treatment plants can clean up discharges, and lakeshore owners can remove their over-fertilized lawns and plant aquatic vegetation, along with fixing their leaky septic tanks. More recently, we’ve become aware of the rise of chlorides in waterways from runoff of wintertime road salt.

A few examples of impaired lakes in Minnesota // Photos courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

A few examples of impaired bodies of waters in Minnesota // Photos courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

We know that indiscriminate fertilizer use causes enormous water quality problems in rural areas. But Mark Dayton’s recent plan to address nitrate contamination largely consists of urging farmers to volunteer to stop overusing the stuff. This is unlikely to make a difference, as evidenced by the non-compliance of Iowa’s corn and soybean farmers after that state approved a voluntary nitrate reduction plan in 2013.

Dayton would regulate fertilizer overuse in some sensitive areas, however, and farm interests are gearing up to fight it. There’s already a major tilt in favor of the same interests in the federal Clean Water Act that exempts most farm practices. (One gross example: phosphorous was ordered to be removed from lawn fertilizers and detergents, but not farm fertilizer.)

The edge of a crop field eroding into a nearby stream // Photo courtesy the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The edge of a crop field eroding into a nearby stream // Photo courtesy the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Farmers have leveraged their privileged status by effectively fending off or flat-out ignoring pollution and water use efforts aimed at them. Or, as in the case where Governor Dayton required grass buffers around water courses to filter nitrogen and phosphorous, farm groups worked to exempt their “private ditches,” blowing a huge hole in an otherwise noble attempt to limit the damage.

Minnesota has a huge financial stake here. Lakes are now a $13 billion industry, with tourists competing with locals for their spot at the lake. Fishing generates a huge draw, as anglers drop over $2 billion into the state’s economy. Lakeshore property that relies on quality water is worth billions more, all amounting to a major (and taxable) value.

Actually, the environmental onslaught on lakes is relatively recent. Until the 1950s, most lakeshore had no unusual value, but post-war prosperity changed all that as folks sought escapes by building small cottages on lakes, usually far enough from shore that they weren’t even seen.

But drive around most any lake in central Minnesota today, and you’ll see not just larger cabins for intermittent use, but gargantuan permanent homes with three-car garages built close to shore. An immediate problem was sewage drainage systems that didn’t work or were not maintained, and sheets of green water started showing up around docks. Worse, lakeshore owners removed near-shore vegetation that otherwise would serve as filters to take up contaminants and replaced it with rock rip-rap.

Experts have long known what to do, but their voices have been mostly muffled.

Folks wanted their lake homes to look like those in suburbia, so lawns were planted and sprinkling systems installed. Shore trees and near-shore weeds were removed, along with some marvelous fish habitat.

Even high-quality northern lakes are showing stress as roads are cut into forests and homesites built. Many of the lakes are in areas of public forests where development cannot occur, but the lakes remain vulnerable. Popular central Minnesota lakes may look good to the casual observer and sunsets over them are extraordinary, but all of them are much more degraded than the public thinks.

The shoreline of a crowded lake // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The shoreline of a crowded lake // Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

And now another serious threat looms: a changing climate has measurably warmed up lakes and lengthened periods between ice-free in spring and ice-over in fall. This gives algae much more time to grow and suck up life-supporting oxygen as it decays. Too, cold water feeder fish like the tullibee are disappearing.

Experts have long known what to do, but their voices have been mostly muffled. Restoration of trees and grasses in near-shore watersheds must occur, lakeshore owners must remove rip-rap and plant natural vegetation, including trees, and farmers must finally get serious about cutting back, or investing in ways to curb the effects of, their overuse of nitrogen fertilizers.

All of it is doable. But all of it is pocked with political minefields complicated by a public that is largely tuned out.

It’s going to take a savior in the governor’s chair who will organize water quality management into a single entity, rather than continuing to have dozens of agencies throughout government with some level of control. It’s going to take saviors in the legislature to appropriate funds and enable regulations that are urgently needed. And it’s going to take a whole lot of those in the public to understand that we’re loving to death the very lakes that define Minnesota.

The task is long overdue, but not without hope. Mostly.