An alliance of local, state and federal agencies is starting to see the results of their efforts to protect and restore the waters of southeast Minnesota, where bacteria levels have dropped in two rivers.
An ad-hoc group of agencies started meeting in 1999 to discuss water quality problems across the Lower Mississippi and Cedar River basins. They formed the Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota (BALMM) to write a basin plan and coordinate water quality efforts. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s watershed unit in Rochester played a leading role in forming the alliance and writing the basin plan. Now the MPCA plays a supporting role with local partners taking the lead.
Levels of fecal coliform bacteria — indicating fecal contamination — in rivers are a top concern in the basins. A decade ago, BALMM started intensive work on the thousands of small feedlots and the 100-plus unsewered communities that contribute to fecal coliform runoff in the southeast region. That was in response to the Regional Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a study that identified sources of bacteria and the reductions needed for the rivers to meet water quality standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved this study first in 2002 and again in 2006 following a court-ordered revision.
BALMM partners, led by the Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board obtained funding for progress on these sources through 11 projects, mainly from EPA’s Section 319 program. To date, counties assisted by grant-supported technicians and engineers have completed about 376 small feedlot fixes.
In addition, the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative worked with dozens of unsewered communities to evaluate alternative wastewater treatment methods, secure funding, and address questions and problems that arise during the process. So far, with several federal grants, they have helped 19 communities implement complete wastewater treatment, with additional communities in the pipeline.
And the water quality results? At least in the Cannon River watershed, monitoring data point to a significant downward trend in fecal coliform bacteria. Statistical analysis of monitoring data for the Straight River and the mouth of the Cannon River at Welch indicates a 50 percent reduction from 1991 to 2008. The analysis, conducted by researchers at Minnesota State University - Mankato, indicate that the trend is strong and in the right direction in one of Minnesota’s major watersheds where much work has been done to control fecal coliform sources.
Like the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an alliance to restore rivers to healthy conditions. Partners need to work closely together, coordinating efforts and grant applications. Local participation, through counties and soil and water conservation districts, is key to working with landowners and small towns.
“This could have happened only with basin management,” said Norman Senjem, former Mississippi River Basin Coordinator for the MPCA. “Beginning in 1999, we formed our basin alliance, developed a basin plan in 2001, and decided on a basin approach to a fecal coliform TMDL shortly thereafter. All of these steps set the stage for basin-wide implementation of feedlot and septic system projects over the past decade. It’s encouraging to see results in the water after a decade of effort.”
BALMM meets every month in Rochester. If you are interested to hear more about what BALMM is doing, sign up for the monthly newsletter, or visit the BALMM Web page.