MANKATO — While there have been numerous improvements to the Minnesota River basin in the past 20 years — including taking hundreds of thousands of acres of floodplain out of crop production and sharply reducing phosphorus coming from sewage plants — water planners say a more focused approach is needed if improvement is to continue.
“We’re doing a lot of shotgun-blast things, but whether we’re hitting the target is another thing,” said Kathryn Kelley, president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
“We need a more defined target.”
Gene Merriam, president of the Freshwater Society, said the approach in the basin has been to “send a lot of good people to do good things” and hope for improvements. Many improvements have, to varying degree, happened, while other haven’t, he said.
“The discussion we’ve never had, the one I think we need to have, is what are we trying to accomplish. What are the outcomes we want. We need to decide that and then work backward to get those outcomes,” Merriam said.
They were among about 85 people from the river basin who met Wednesday in Mankato at the Watershed Professionals Assembly.
Speakers noted there have been a multitude of intense studies of the river basin for more than 20 years, identifying a host of problems and setting pollution target goals. But many expressed the sense that with scarce funding, tackling some of the more stubborn problems in the basin will be very difficult without finding consensus on some highly charged issues and rallying public and political support to accomplish it.
One of the often cited problems is the increased river bank erosion that is dumping dirt into the river — sediment that ends up in the Mississippi and is filling in Lake Pepin at an alarming rate.
Several major studies are increasingly pointing the finger at improved farm drainage for the problem. Those studies say that water draining off of millions of acres of crop land is rushing to rivers too quickly, causing rapid and extreme fluctuations in river levels and eating away banks. An increase in annual precipitation in the past decade or so accounts for only a small part of the higher river flows.
“We’ve reduced cropland erosion, but we are seeing more bank erosion, more water flow and drainage increasing,” said Glenn Skuta of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “If we want more improvement, we will need to make significant changes in the process.”
Containing the type or amount of farm drainage has been mostly nonexistent. While federal rules strictly regulate things like what can be discharged from a city treatment plant, there are few regulations to limit “non-point” source pollution from things like farm drainage and the related leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Scott Sparlin, director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River in New Ulm, said major successes have occurred, support for the river has steadily risen and those working on river improvement can’t get in a funk if they want to garner limited public funding.
“We can’t talk gloom and doom if we want public support. We have to share what we’ve done,” Sparlin said. “There are networks of dedicated people up and down the river who are ready to do what they can.”