Contact: Jennifer Groebner, 651-296-7706 St. Paul, Minn. -- No one knows better than Donna Rasmussen the long process of cleaning up polluted waters. If you had asked her 10 years ago if she'd still be working on the South Branch Root River watershed project in 2008, she would've said no. The project began with a diagnostic study in 1998, and through various grants and loans, work to improve water quality on the South Branch of the Root River continues to this day. After 17 years with Fillmore County and Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Rasmussen has seen how slowly things can happen when it comes to natural resource management. "But," she said, "improving water quality takes a long time -- and it's not wasted time. We've learned a lot from our work on the South Branch, and that experience will help as we transition to working on the rest of the million-acre Root River watershed." The Fillmore County SWCD is only one of more than 20 groups working on watershed projects in southeastern Minnesota, after intensive studies completed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) called for regional water quality improvements. Southeastern Minnesota's Impaired Waters
In 1998 when work began on the South Branch Root River Watershed project, the MPCA was concurrently undergoing a statewide bacteria monitoring effort. Those monitoring efforts and subsequent studies found 39 streams and river reaches in the Lower Mississippi and Cedar River Basins "impaired" for swimming, due to fecal coliform levels that were above Minnesota's water quality standards.
"The rivers of southeast Minnesota are quite popular for canoeing and other recreational uses like swimming, fly-fishing and kayaking, which makes reducing bacteria levels a high priority for the MPCA," Lee Ganske, MPCA watershed supervisor, said.
The results called for an intensive study to assess why the rivers were so polluted, and to learn what could be done to restore the water quality. Known as a TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load study, it was the first study completed in Minnesota and the first regional TMDL in the nation. The Southeast Regional Fecal Coliform TMDL was completed in 2002, and revised and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) again in 2006.
Following the TMDL's approval from the EPA, a detailed plan was written to reduce pollution and restore water quality. The Southeast Regional Fecal Coliform TMDL's Implementation Plan was written and completed in 2007. Since then, a wide range of efforts to reduce fecal coliform bacteria in the rivers and streams of the basin have begun.
Local partners stepping in to help
Forty-seven water quality improvement projects have either taken place or started since 2002. Since 2001, the MPCA has funded 26 projects through federal Clean Water Act and state Clean Water Partnership and Clean Water Legacy funding to local area partners, totaling more than $6 million. Cities, counties, state and federal agencies and other local government funding sources have brought the total to nearly $14.9 million spent on water quality improvement projects in Minnesota's southeastern region.
Norm Senjem, Mississippi River Basin Coordinator at the MPCA, said the participation of local government - counties, SWCDs and small towns - in identifying and fixing up sources of fecal coliform is the project's biggest achievement. "The local partners now keep these efforts going. We've seen changes in attitude and policies, such as more counties adopting ordinances requiring septic system inspections when a property is sold, hiring of compliance staff and major ongoing efforts on smaller feedlots," Senjem said.
A few of the specific efforts include:
· Reduction of runoff from smaller, open lot livestock feedlots through increased technical, educational and financial support.
· Assistance to beef and dairy producers to accelerate the use of rotational grazing.
· Doubling in the rate at which inadequate septic systems and small unsewered communities are being upgraded. A total of 15 communities, affecting a population more than 6,500, have completed upgrades, with several more in progress around the region.
Throughout the course of the South Branch Root River watershed project, Rasmussen has worked with nine different government partners and six citizen stream monitoring volunteers. The project has included on-the-ground efforts such as planting river-and stream-bank buffers, offering incentives for conservation tillage and nutrient management, cost-shares for feedlot fixes, loans for septic system upgrades, incentives for woodland stewardship plans and managed grazing.
"It appears that people are becoming more receptive to the implementation efforts, possibly because both livestock and human waste issues are being addressed without one being targeted over the other," Rasmussen said. "Most people understand that everyone has to make changes so they seem to feel like they are being treated equally."
Monitoring resumes this spring to test implementation practices on water quality
Since the implementation plan is still in its infancy, Tiffany Schauls, MPCA water quality monitoring specialist, says it may be too early to assess the progress, especially with last year's flood, but that a lot of work has been done. Last summer, Schauls and other MPCA staff monitored 10 sites around the region. Those same sites identified the impairments in 1997-1998 and will be used again this spring, starting in May. "Consistent monitoring over time can help to assess the trend, especially with a pollutant as variable as bacteria," Schauls said.
The total estimated clean-up cost for restoring the water quality in the lower Mississippi and Cedar River Basins is $200 million.
Water quality improvement project partners include:
Board of Soil & Water Resources
Cannon River Watershed Partnership
City of Apple Valley
City of Rochester
Dakota County & SWCD
Dodge County & SWCD
Fillmore County & SWCD
Hiawatha Valley Resource Conservation & Development Association
Le Sueur County & SWCD
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
MN Land Trust
Mower County & SWCD
Olmsted County & SWCD
Rice County & SWCD
Root River Watershed District
Shell Rock River Watershed District
Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board
SE MN Wastewater Initiative
SE Soil & Water Conservation District Technical Support Joint Powers Board
Steele County & SWCD
University of Minnesota and University of Minnesota Extension
Whitewater Joint Powers Board
Winona County & SWCD
More information about all of the water-quality improvement efforts undergoing in southeastern Minnesota can be found at www.pca.state.mn.us/water/tmdl/project-lowermiss-fecal.html. If you'd like to get involved as a citizen stream or lake volunteer, contact the MPCA at 1-800-627-3529.