Editorial: Minnesota’s water needs more attention

Few days go by without a story in the news about water. Often times it is somewhere else in the world, like diminishing glaciers in the Arctic or Antarctic, or hurricanes, typhoons and tsunamis in distant locations.

More frequently we learn of water crises elsewhere in the U.S. For several weeks we have been hearing of the city drinking water in Flint, Michigan, being so seriously contaminated with lead that it has caused irreversible health damage to those drinking the water, especially children. For several years there has been on-going coverage of the drought and its effect in the western U.S., especially California.

Minnesota locales have not avoided disturbing water news either. We seem to hear weekly reports of yet another lake discovered to be infested with an aquatic invasive species, or another urban lake designated by the Pollution Control Agency as “impaired” because of high levels of chloride contamination from road salt.

White Bear Lake has been newsworthy for a few years because of a seriously declining lake level. A U.S. Geological Survey study determined that the likely cause of the drop in the lake level is the drawdown of the aquifer attributable to pumping by municipal wells in the area and in the growing suburban area up-gradient from the lake.

Lake Pepin, a large lake within the Mississippi River created by a natural dam at its southern confluence with the Chippewa River, has often been in the news. Well over half of Minnesota and a portion of Wisconsin drain into Lake Pepin so it is a good indicator of what we are doing to our lakes and streams. Research indicates that the current sedimentation rate, carrying soil material in large part from the Minnesota River and its tributaries draining the agricultural areas of the southern half of Minnesota, is filling in Lake Pepin at a rate of 10 times its natural rate. In addition, the phosphorous and nitrate contamination of the water entering Lake Pepin results in a failure to meet water quality standards.

As the Mississippi flows out of Minnesota those contaminants contribute to the creation of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. A similar problem has developed in the northwestern part of Minnesota where nutrient loading from agricultural fields into the tributaries of the northward flowing Red River is a major contributor to an expanding dead zone in Lake Winnipeg.

Many of us have noticed increasing algae blooms in our favorite lakes and frequently wonder what, if anything, can be done about them. A couple of months ago news reports told of mysterious fish kills in the Whitewater River in southeastern Minnesota.

Over the next several months, the ECM Publishers Editorial Board will explore some of these water problems. We will attempt to gauge how serious the challenges are and what all of us can do to address these problems.

Gov. Mark Dayton last year, perhaps in reaction to a growing awareness of water quality deterioration as well as strong recommendations coming out of a Pheasant Summit over the loss of habitat from increased agricultural production, called for a new buffer law to protect lakes, rivers and streams. Last June, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a scaled back version of the governor’s buffer law.

More recently the governor held a water summit in St. Paul. This involved more than 800 people coming together to discuss water problems and opportunities to address these problems. We will be watching to see what may develop from these discussions.

— An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board.