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      Minnesota River Breathes Easier

      Posted on November 19, 2012 at 10:49 AM

      MPCA monitors the Minnesota river for low dissolved oxygen for the first time since 1988

      Op/Ed by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine
      Published in the Pioneer Press on Saturday, November 17, 2012.

      Sometimes the science tells us we’re doing something right.

      Earlier this week we stood with our state and local government partners to celebrate a noteworthy achievement. Together, citizens, state and local government along with private sector contributions have helped make the Minnesota River a lot cleaner with lowered pollution levels and increases in dissolved oxygen benefiting fish and other life in the river.  There is still much to accomplish on the Minnesota, but this is undeniably great news.

      Why did we make such a big deal of our discovery? Because, environmental changes normally happen in small steps over long periods of time.  Our water in the Minnesota didn’t get polluted overnight. It took decades of unsewered communities and non-existent regulation of pollution discharges. Similarly, it’s often difficult to measure environmental gains realized with a myriad of incremental steps by thousands of people over years and decades.

      A survey just completed by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency water monitoring experts showed marked improvements in dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, and chlorophyll levels over years past during hot summer low flow conditions on the Minnesota River.  Phosphorus discharges to the river feed algae, which consume oxygen when they die and decay thereby choking off other life from thriving in the river ecosystem.  Historically we have observed dangerously low dissolved oxygen levels that can harm fish and aquatic life during low flow conditions. 

      So how did the many contributors to the Minnesota River basin realize this improvement?; decades of hard work, innovative strategy and taxpayer investment. Some of these strategies include:

      •    a unique trading program that allowed community wastewater treatment facilities to work together to reduce phosphorus discharges to the river
      •    improved phosphorus removal at over 40 wastewater treatment plants that surpassed goals for wastewater phosphorus loading to the basin ahead of schedule
      •    wastewater stabilization ponds avoiding discharge from June through September,
      •    upgraded wastewater treatment for 12 undersewered communities

      The recent data show that reductions in wastewater phosphorus discharges to the river have translated to real environmental improvement. This is a clear sign that taxpayer investments are delivering results.  We estimate that, with the help of funding authorized by the Legislature, more than 100 communities along the Minnesota invested about $400 million dollars to achieve this change over the last decade. This taxpayer investment in a priceless natural resource is also an investment in Minnesotan’s economy and quality of life.

      So what now?

      More work must be done to reduce sediment, bacteria, nutrients and other contaminants in the river at higher flows. To accomplish that farmers must do better with soil and water conservation practices and cities must do better storm water management. So we all still have work to do.

      If we join together and do that work we can have celebrations like we did this week. I can imagine community and state leaders standing together years from now to say that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is shrinking and Lake Pepin is no longer filling with sediment. Scientifically, we know we have the ability to attain such goals, and as Minnesotans, who live at the top of the nation’s Mississippi River watershed, we must make it an outcome we all work toward achieving.

      Commissioner John Linc Stine
      Minnesota Pollution Control Agency