New report shines light on water quality concerns in Minnesota

Contact: Cathy Rofshus, 507-206-2608

St. Paul, Minn. — A new report released today by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency provides additional evidence that agricultural and urban runoff is contributing significantly to the impairment of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams. The new study, which monitored half of the state’s 81 major watersheds, takes an in-depth look at the lakes and streams in major drainage areas. According to the MPCA, it is unlikely that current or new clean water funding can significantly improve the deteriorating conditions of many of the state’s waters —  unless the state employs new strategies to prevent the pollution from happening in the first place.

The study, “Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable?”, found that poor water quality is concentrated in certain regions of the state, especially in southern Minnesota. MPCA researchers noted that in heavily farmed areas, surrounding lakes and streams had high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These high levels make it difficult to support aquatic life, and in some cases prohibit people from swimming in lakes and streams. The report’s findings conclude that poor water quality in southern Minnesota waters is caused predominantly by agricultural runoff. Urban areas also suffer from elevated levels of water pollution caused by runoff.

“We have seen many of these patterns developing during the last 20 years. With the comprehensive watershed information we are gathering, we are much closer to a diagnosis that can point us toward the changes that need to happen,” said MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. “While the Legacy Funds Minnesota citizens invested are helping us take steps forward, it’s clear that we can’t buy our way to healthy waters.”

Key Findings in the Report

The report released today was compiled by the MPCA over the last several years, and was funded by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment. The MPCA found that phosphorus and nitrogen, high bacteria levels and mercury contamination continue to be problems in many of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams. These pollutants, which are typically the product of urban and agricultural land runoff, have left many bodies of water inadequate for human consumption and aquatic life. Key findings from the report include:

  • Urban and Agricultural Impact — Areas of Minnesota with larger human and livestock populations are struggling the most with water-quality. According to the MPCA study, runoff from land under intense urban or agricultural uses has left half or less of the lakes in those areas clean enough for healthy aquatic life and enjoyable swimming.
  • Bacteria Levels — Higher levels of bacteria were discovered in many Minnesota waters. Generally, higher levels of bacteria indicate feedlot runoff or human waste in a water body, indicating it may be unsafe for swimming and other recreation.
  • Mercury-Tainted Fish — Despite Minnesota’s progress in preventing mercury from entering lakes, rivers and streams from our state’s power utilities and other sources, the MPCA study concluded that mercury remains widely present in fish. The vast majority of lakes and streams examined in the study — 97 percent of 490 stream sections and 95 percent of 1,214 lakes studied — contain fish tainted by mercury.
  • High Levels of Nitrogen and Phosphorus — The MPCA study also found that watersheds that are heavily farmed or developed tend to have high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids in their waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algal blooms while suspended solids make the water murky. These pollutants hurt aquatic life and recreational opportunities.
  • Problems Vary Regionally — While urban and agricultural runoff were the general source of problems across Minnesota, the types of pollution causing problems in specific bodies of water varied regionally. Typical problems included issues such as low oxygen levels, excess nutrients, excess sediment, disruption of natural water flows, a lack of habitat, and a lack of connectivity between different bodies of water.

Recommended Strategies to Improve Water Quality

In addition to identifying stressors and healthy conditions in Minnesota’s lakes and streams, the MPCA and partner agencies have recommended strategies to restore and protect our waters. Those recommendations include: stream buffers, nutrient and manure management, stormwater controls and in-lake treatments. While most strategies are tailored for their specific watersheds, some strategies recommended by the MPCA do call for stronger and more targeted application of state and local laws on feedlots, shoreland, septic systems, stormwater controls and wastewater discharges.

“We are in this for the long haul — and we are talking 20 or more years,” said Commissioner Stine. “We need continued vigilance to protect our healthy waters and take targeted action to restore those that are impaired. It took decades for our lakes and streams to become polluted, and it will take many more years to restore them.”