Minnesota River problems call for regenerative solutions

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photo credit: MPCA

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently began collecting public comments on its reports – and proposed solutions – for the challenges facing the Minnesota River.

The Minnesota is the third-longest stretch of river in the state. The area of its watershed extends over one-sixth of Minnesota, home to more than half a million people. And the land is dominated by row crop agriculture, mostly corn and soybeans. These monocrops have produced large yields for decades, but they’ve also created serious problems for the Minnesota River.

Sediment is one of the major challenges identified by the MPCA, which estimates that it must be reduced by half to meet Clean Water Act standards. Sediment reduces the river’s capacity to support wildlife and boat transportation. Soil and sand from eroding land drain into the river after snowmelts and heavy rainfall (a problem certain to be exacerbated by climate change.) It’s well established that the transition from prairie and small grain fields to corn and soybeans in the 1940s has contributed heavily to erosion.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are likewise of critical concern, and originate largely from the same source: heavy monocrop agriculture. Nitrogen and phosphorus, which regularly run off of cropland and into drainage systems, ditches, and streams, contribute to unfishable and undrinkable rivers, and the broader crisis facing the Mississippi River and those downstream.

High levels of bacteria like E. coli also threaten the health of the Minnesota watershed. Bacteria enter the river from numerous sources, particularly municipal water treatment and stormwater systems, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and faulty septic systems.

There is no single silver bullet for confronting the Minnesota River’s threats. Nor will it be solved by piecemeal steps or inaction, as has been the case for decades. Instead, it will require multiple impactful steps.

We’ll need to make agriculture a part of the solution. Studies of Lake Pepin showed that sediment from farmland has been reduced significantly since the 1940s, which researchers attribute to better conservation practices in the St. Croix River area. We know that perennials and winter cover crops, which keep roots in the soil all year round, can help decrease erosion and absorb more water and more nutrients into the soil.

The task before us is to make sure that we have an effective, viable, and economically healthy means to bring these helpful and transformative crops to Minnesota farmland. This year, the Legislature more than doubled state funding to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which helps to develop these crops and their place in the market. Investing in these programs, and increasing conservation acres on the land, can help address the Minnesota’s sediment and nutrient woes.

Making sure that Minnesota communities and well-owners can upgrade water infrastructure and septic systems can also improve the situation. As the climate continues to change, and flooding events that overtax our infrastructure become more common, it’s clear that state resources should be put to good use improving these systems to prevent bacterial outbreaks and other water contamination, without threatening the finances of Minnesota cities and residents.

These aren’t the only steps needed to clean up Minnesota’s namesake river, of course. And it’s critical that the MPCA and other authorities need to hear from those most affected by the river’s challenges. We invite those who live along – or care about – the Minnesota River Basin to visit the MPCA website to learn more and comment on the agency’s findings, and ask their lawmakers what they plan to do to improve the river. Solving this problem starts with those who make their voices heard.

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