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Minnesota's namesake river is a mess

A new study from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found several water quality issues.
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Minnesota is known for its pristine waters, but our namesake river is anything but.

When GoMN interviewed Minnesotans who are paddling to protect our rivers earlier this year, all of them said that the Minnesota River looked really dirty.

A new study from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) confirms that.

The study, which was based on recent water monitoring and decades of research, found that the river faces several water quality issues. The Minnesota River "strains under pressure from its geology, surrounding land use and changing climate," the MPCA says.

And while there are some areas that show improvement, officials say overall, the river is unhealthy, and it'll take a lot of work to clean it up.

Major pollutants

The study found four major pollutants: sediment that clouds the water and harms river life, phosphorus that contributes to dangerous algae growth, and nitrogen and bacteria, which pose health risks to people and animals.

The MPCA says 35 percent of the sediment comes from farm fields, which is not surprising because more than 80 percent of the land in the Minnesota River basin is used for agriculture.

"Since that’s the majority land use, that’s where most of the work needs to be done," the agency says.

The other major pollutants – phosphorus, bacteria, and nitrate – can also be linked to agriculture practices as well as wastewater from treatment facilities.

Nitrate levels are especially a growing concern because of the Minnesota River’s influence on drinking water in the Mankato area, the MPCA says.

Environmental factors

Researchers found that over the last 80 years, water flows have doubled on the river, which plays a big role in all of these problems.

"There’s more rain, more artificial drainage, and not enough places to store this water. Worse yet, the landscape is naturally vulnerable to erosion," the agency said.

The water quality issues in the Minnesota River are causing problems for other rivers too.

The report shows that the river, which begins at Big Stone Lake in western Minnesota, and flows 335 miles across the state to the Mississippi, is the largest contributor of Mississippi River sediment and nutrient pollution.

There are signs of progress

Some good news: the report found that fish populations are generally considered healthy throughout the river.

And some types of fish that were once in decline – like the blue sucker and lake sturgeon – appear to be rebounding.

More farmers are exploring and using conservation practices, and local watershed organizations help landowners with water quality projects.

There's also a lot less phosphorus in the water than there used to be. The MPCA says that's because wastewater treatment facilities are complying with tighter permit limits.

Still, the agency says we need to do more to protect river life and recreation.

Restoring the water quality will depend on individual and group actions, as well as changes in government policies and programs, the MPCA says.

“There are no magic solutions. Government alone cannot solve this. This study informs us to focus our actions, and people must work together to find solutions,” Glenn Skuta, director of the MPCA watershed division said in a news release.

You can read the full report here.

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