The MPCA’s year in environmental innovations

Contact: Mary Connor, 651-757-2629

St. Paul, Minn. — In 2015, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) came up with a variety of creative approaches to the state’s environmental challenges.

Water quality data supporting leading-edge buffer strip legislation
The MPCA’s “Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable?” report, released in April, offered additional evidence of the impaired water quality in Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams — particularly in southern Minnesota — and what is causing it: agricultural and urban runoff. The report became a critical support to Governor Dayton’s successful buffer-strip legislation, which mandates 50-foot vegetative strips between cropland and streams to protect waters from runoff. Minnesota is one of the first states in the nation to enact legislation to protect water quality with buffer strips. And the MPCA’s watershed monitoring, which is funded by the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, is increasing our knowledge of the state’s tremendous water resources and how to protect them.

Flexible pollutant-trading provisions for meeting water quality goals
Princeton, Minn., discharges its treated wastewater to the Rum River, a tributary to the Mississippi River upstream of Lake Pepin. Reducing the amount of phosphorus in the river is important for preventing algae growth, but reducing phosphorus in Princeton’s wastewater discharges would involve expensive treatment plant upgrades. So the MPCA worked with the city to create a first-of-its-kind permit provision, allowing Princeton to offset its phosphorus discharges by restoring and maintaining streambanks on the Rum River in five areas. These efforts have reduced the amount of soil released into the river, and the phosphorus that comes with it. The city’s draft permit gives them credit for the reduction that serves as an offset for the phosphorous load discharged from the wastewater facility. The five streambank restoration projects are preventing sediment, containing about 10,700 pounds of phosphorus, from entering the Rum River each year and protecting Lake Pepin, which suffers from excess sediment. MPCA officials hope Princeton’s example will help other Minnesota communities looking to meet low phosphorus discharge limits without modifying wastewater facilities.

Similarly, a pending permit establishes one phosphorous limit for all five wastewater treatment facilities managed by the Metropolitan Council, which can decide which facilities must remove more phosphorus from their discharges. The Met Council can control how it manages its phosphorous treatment to achieve the required reductions. “This approach will maximize our flexibility to meet water quality standards, and in the process will save money that we can use to further improve wastewater treatment, and thus water quality, in the region,” said Leisa Thompson, general manager of Metropolitan Council Environmental Services. 

A groundbreaking report on metro-area air quality
Scientists from the MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) worked together to estimate the impact of air pollution in the Twin Cities metro area on public health. The result was “Life and Breath: How air pollution affects public health in the Twin Cities.” The report’s findings were alarming. Though air quality in Minnesota is generally good, even low and moderate levels of pollution are dangerous to some Twin Cities residents:

  • Air pollution contributed to about 2,000 deaths, 400 hospitalizations and 600 emergency-room visits in the Twin Cities in 2008.
  • In 2008, about 6% to 13% of all residents in the Twin Cities metro area who died, and about 2% to 5% who visited the hospital or emergency room for heart and lung problems, did so because fine particles or ground-level ozone made their conditions worse.
  • The groups most affected by air pollution are people of color, elderly people, children with uncontrolled asthma, and people living in poverty. Vulnerable populations may experience more health effects because these populations already have higher rates of heart and lung conditions. They experience more hospitalizations, emergency-room visits for asthma and death related to air pollution.

Creative reuse of dredge material in Duluth’s St. Louis River estuary
This year saw the completion of a three-year pilot project that used 350,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Duluth harbor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help restore aquatic habitat in the St. Louis River estuary. The dredged material was placed in the river and along the shoreline of the 350-acre 21st Avenue West site, at the base of the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth. The site had been converted from estuary to harbor in the late 1800s. The restoration softened the shoreline and created gentle slopes, to encourage water plants, animals, and bugs that live in sediment and support a better fish habitat. The successful pilot will provide Duluth with a new attraction for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. In addition, this restoration method can be used to reconstruct aquatic habitats at other sites.  

Contact the MPCA to learn more about its innovative approaches to pollution control and reduction.