Survey results show poor water quality in Minnesota River

Minnesota’s reputation for beautiful, pristine waters is a point of pride for most who live here, but our namesake river, all 335 miles of it, carries the muck and murk of something much less.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's most recent study clearly shows sediment clouds the water, phosphorus feeds algae and nitrogen and bacteria pose health risks to humans and animals.

"The pollution levels that we’re seeing in the river do affect recreation,” Dayna Vanderbosch, who monitors lakes and streams for the MPCA, said. “There are high levels of bacteria that increase the risk of people becoming sick when they recreate in the river.”

The Minnesota River is a body of water that touches many people and a good portion of the state. The nearly border-to-border river from Big Stone Lake to St. Paul cuts through the type of geography that creates unique water quality issues, such as the following:

Sediment: rapid rises in flows from tributaries pull dirt from ravines and streambanks.

Tributary troubles: Blue Earth, Cottonwood, and Le Sueur rivers bring in most of the pollutants.

Nitrate in the river: Mankato draws drinking water from shallow wells that are strongly influenced by the Minnesota and Blue Earth rivers.

More water: Heavy and more rain combined with more drain tile and unmanaged ditches are bringing in more pollutants from the landscape directly into the river.

But if there is a silver lining in the muddy river it is this: most cities have improved wastewater treatment, greatly reducing phosphorous pollution and farmers are beginning to recognize that protecting their land can also save the river.

The Minnesota River Valley is rich in farmland and according to the MPCA; farm runoff contributes to 35 percent of the sediment pollution that flows into the river. But, if you can slow or stop that sediment dump, the health of the river can be greatly improved and getting farmers on board is the key.

"At any given time we're working with about 275 land owners; many of them are dairy farmers, beef farmers, cash crop farmers and grain farmers,” Troy Kuphal, Scott County’s district manager for soil and water conservation Troy Kuphal said. “They're looking for solutions as well. They want to protect their land and water just as much as anybody else."

Kuphal works alongside field research conservationist Scott Schneider. Part of their job is to help lifelong farmers like Donald and Rick Stocker implement land management methods that help the rain that nourishes their crops find a clean and efficient path through the watershed and eventually into the Minnesota River.

They recently checked on the progress of a newly installed, cost-shared project of grass waterways, private drainage ditches and buffer strips all designed to filter and move the water safely and cleanly through their fields.

"Like with Don, he came in because he said ‘I’ve got a heck of a gully running through my field and a waterway there that was working for many, many years, but now it's not working so good and it's gullying out something fierce and I want to get it fixed’,” Schneider, a resource conservationist for Scott County, said.

A view from above clearly shows the common ground that cropland and the Minnesota River often share, which makes slowing down, filtering and storing runoff extremely important to the health of the waterway.

In the case of Rick and Donald Stocker, runoff from the farms they operate will ultimately find nearby Sand Creek, which eventually flows directly into the Minnesota River. But, because of these newly constructed grass water ways, ditches and buffer strips, the water you see flowing from this pipe gets a passing grade long before it hits the creek and eventually the river.

It is a win-win for farmer Don Stocker.

“We won't have to worry about like through here it was always muddy, I don't think we'll have that problem right now anymore,” Stocker said. “So we can farm right up to the buffer and the waterway without any problem."

Scott County land is only a fraction of the watershed that dumps into the Minnesota River, but if the interest from landowners here is any indication of a willingness to safeguard water quality all along its banks, the Minnesota River might just one day go from murky to magnificent.

On the up side where the Minnesota River is concerned, despite the water quality issues the river faces, most fish populations are healthy. In fact, some species, like the lake sturgeon that had been non-existent in the river for decades are now beginning to show up in regular sampling and angling surveys.