Minnesota River continues to suffer in water quality despite some improvements

Contact:c Cathy Rofshus, 507-383-5949

Our state’s namesake river, the Minnesota, tells a story different from the general perception of good water quality in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers.

The Minnesota River story is one of unique geography, many challenges to water quality from surrounding land use and development, and dedicated efforts by many to make it better. 

The Minnesota River begins at Big Stone Lake in western Minnesota, and flows 335 miles across the southern third of the state to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling.

Overall, the Minnesota River is suffering in water quality, according to a study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) based on recent water monitoring and decades of research. Sediment clouds the water, phosphorus fuels algae growth, nitrogen and bacteria pose health risks. 

Too much water flowing into the river plays a big part in all these problems. There’s more rain, more artificial drainage, and not enough places to store this water. Worse yet, the landscape is naturally vulnerable to erosion.

“There are no magic solutions. Government alone cannot solve this. This study informs us to focus our actions, and people must work together to find solutions,” said Glenn Skuta, director of the MPCA Watershed Division. 

As part of its statewide checkup of lakes and streams, the MPCA studied the entire length of the Minnesota River. It released a summary of its findings today on the Minnesota River webpage.

Among major rivers in the United States, perhaps even the world, the Minnesota River stands apart in its formation and current challenges. Once a massive, prehistoric river, today its remnant strains under pressure from geography, surrounding land use and changing climate. The Minnesota River basin provides fishing and other recreation for much of southern Minnesota. But it’s also the biggest contributor of sediment and nutrient pollution to the Mississippi River in Minnesota. And nitrate levels are a growing concern because of the Minnesota River’s influence on drinking water in the Mankato area. 

There are some signs of progress. Many farmers are exploring and using conservation practices such as minimum tillage, cover crops and building soil health. The fish population is generally healthy, though there are concerns about aquatic insects that are food sources for fish. Cities and industries have improved wastewater treatment, vastly reducing the phosphorus they discharge to the Minnesota River basin. Local watershed organizations help landowners with water quality projects such as buffer strips and grass waterways.

But there is still more to do if Minnesota’s namesake river is to meet water quality standards designed to protect river life and recreation.