State seeks input on water pollution reduction

MARSHALL – Minnesota is a headwaters state. Forty-one states drain into the Mississippi drainage basin, eight states drain into the Great Lakes and four into Lake Winnipeg. But only the waters of Minnesota drain into all of them.

That makes Minnesota the starting point of any discussion addressing the issue of water pollution. Nutrient runoff from agriculture containing nitrogen and phosphorus is a significant problem, causing a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where aquatic life can’t survive and oxygen-depleting algae blooms in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg.

Now the Minnesota Water Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is seeking public input on a proposed nutrient reduction strategy as part of a combined effort by 12 states along the Mississippi River. MPCA is holding a series of public meetings and soliciting input through its website.

“We want input from farmers, scientists and the public,” said Wayne Anderson, strategy manager for MPCA, “anybody who uses water.”

The long-term goal set by the Environmental Protection Agency is a 45 percent reduction of loading to the Gulf of Mexico.

“What makes us the most different is not that we’re draining in three directions but how little drains into Minnesota,” said Lucas Youngsma, area hydrologist at the Marshall office of the Department of Natural Resources. “So the actions we have in the state affect not just us but everybody downstream – and downstream is three major watersheds.”

After use, water flows into receiving streams through point sources and non-point sources.

“Point sources are usually minor compared to non-point sources,” said Joe Hauger, pollution control specialist with the Marshall office of the MPCA.

Point sources are outlets, such as municipal sewage treatment plants and factories, which can be identified, monitored and regulated.

The major non-point source is cropland runoff but also includes parking lots, lawns and septic tanks. These sources are difficult to monitor and rely on voluntary compliance with best management practices.

“They have reduction in nutrient goals and to accomplish this certain things need to be done,” said Robert Olsen, Lincoln County environmental administrator. “There is a movement on all fronts: federal, state and local. We’re all trying to react in a reasonable fashion to achieve goals that affect water quality. In the proposed strategy, we’re talking about cropland runoff.”

Controlling cropland runoff is in the best interest of farmers, according to Olsen.

“It’s not a problem when nutrients we put in the soil stay there,” Olsen said. “No farmer wants to pay good money for fertilizer and see it wash downstream.”

Part of the problem is that nitrogen compounds dissolve easily in water and easily wash away in heavy rains. Knowing how much fertilizer to apply is often a guessing game.

Since the voter-passed 2008 Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment funded by a three-eighths of 1 percent state sales tax, state agencies have been able to collect more data in a more organized and coordinated fashion than ever before, giving state agencies and water users a better understanding of how nutrients get into water and how to keep them out.

According to Mark Hanson, watershed coordinator with the MPCA, the strategy for urban settings involves measures, such as storm water holding basins, and financial help for small towns for constructing wastewater treatment facilities that may be beyond their means.

In rural settings, measures include buffer strips between fields and receiving streams, control drainage techniques, bioreactors fed by tile lines and wetland restoration for natural consumption of excess nutrients.

“The sales tax enable us to set up a water monitoring system that’s the envy of other states,” Hauger said. “Minnesota has a pretty powerful water culture; we’ve got so many lakes and streams. It’s important to us.”

Minnesota’s draft nutrient reduction strategy is open for public comment until Dec. 18. Comments should be provided in written form and delivered by email, or mail to: Wayne Anderson Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Road, North St. Paul, MN 55155.