Shell Rock River Watershed reports: Nutrient pollution must significantly decrease for fish habitat, recreation to improve

Contact: Cathy Malakowsky, 507-383-5949

A clump of green filamentous algae that looks like fiber or threads on the end of a stick.

Nutrient pollution needs to significantly decrease — by as much as 75 percent in some waters — for lakes and streams in the Shell Rock River Watershed to better support fish and recreation, according to two reports by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and its partners. Expanded cropland practices and wastewater treatment, among other strategies are needed, to continue improving water quality in the watershed, which is in Freeborn County and includes the city of Albert Lea.

The watershed faces several water quality challenges, including:

  • Pickerel, White, Fountain, and Albert Lea lakes all have levels of phosphorus too high to meet water quality standards. Phosphorus feeds algae growth, which reduces habitat for fish and other species. Nutrient levels need to decrease by 46 -71 percent.
  • Parts of Bancroft and Schoff creeks have bacteria levels too high at times to meet standards. Bacteria can make streams unsafe for contact recreation such as wading.
  • Part of Schoff Creek has nutrient and sediment levels too high to meet standards. Nutrients cause algae, and sediment makes the water too cloudy for fish and other aquatic species.

Two adult swans and five young swans swim in open water of a wetland.

Local governments and residents have restored wetlands, implemented city runoff controls, created rough fish barriers, and started other innovative programs to help restore water quality. These strategies have mostly focused on lakes, but the Shell Rock River, a designated state water trail, needs restoration, too.

The river suffers at times from high nutrient, bacteria, sediment, and pH levels, all harmful to fish and other aquatic species. The river’s dissolved oxygen levels are too low at times to sustain fish. Pollution reduction will be necessary from both regulated sources, like the Albert Lea wastewater treatment plant, and non-regulated sources, such as fertilizer runoff and erosion.

“In essence, we have an algae factory in Albert Lea Lake,” explained Wayne Cords, regional watershed manager for the MPCA. “Fertilizer runoff and phosphorus in the bottom sediment lead to high algae levels that flow into the Shell Rock River. Then downstream, the Albert Lea wastewater treatment facility is like a super-feeder of phosphorus into the river, producing even more algae. We are looking for leadership from all sectors to work together to improve and preserve natural resources for people here and downstream.”

To achieve the goals, phosphorus must decrease by 75 percent, which may require the City of Albert Lea to upgrade its 40-year-old wastewater treatment facility. The facility discharged 32 tons of phosphorus directly into the Shell Rock River in 2019 — the third-highest level discharged by Minnesota facilities. To reduce nutrient pollution in rivers, the MPCA has set limits on phosphorus in wastewater from more than 300 communities across Minnesota. Many faced challenging limits, but successfully reduced their nutrient pollution.

Improving water here and downstream

An informational sign overlooks a rain garden on the shoreline of a lake.

The Shell Rock River Watershed comprises a chain of lakes, connected by streams and ditches that all drain to or eventually become the Shell Rock River. The river joins the Cedar River, which is a source of drinking water for Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Recommendations for the watershed include continued efforts to:

  • Reduce nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from regulated sources such as wastewater treatment plants and city stormwater runoff.
  • Reduce bacteria levels by repairing failing septic systems, improving animal manure management, and ensuring animal feedlot compliance. This builds on efforts by the Shell Rock River Watershed District, with at least $7 million invested by more than 700 homeowners to upgrade or replace their septic systems.
  • Reduce phosphorus and nitrogen from non-regulated sources such as cropland through better managing nutrients and incorporating cover crops. The Freeborn County Soil Health Team, led by the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), promotes practices that build soil health and help water quality.
  • Increase water storage through wetland restorations, controlled drainage structures, drainage ditch system management, and soil health practices. The SWCD and Freeborn County currently lead such initiatives with numerous partners.
  • Implement lake management strategies for shallow lakes such as rough fish control, native aquatic plant restorations, and water level drawdowns. Efforts by the watershed district have included installing barriers on several lakes to keep out carp and other fish that stir up the bottom sediment.

“A great deal of good work has already been done in this watershed, but the job is not finished,” Cords says. “We need significant reductions in pollutants for the lakes and streams to better support fish, aquatic insects and recreation. The reductions need to come from all sources — urban, business, rural and agricultural.”

The first report, called a total maximum daily load (TMDL), determines the levels of pollutants that water bodies can accept and still meet standards designed to protect aquatic life and recreation. The second report, called watershed restoration and protection strategies (WRAPS), outlines the steps to improve water quality in local lakes and streams.

The two reports are open for public comment through Sept. 25. The agency will hold a public information meeting, via Webex, on Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. For the presentation, details about the reports and public meeting, visit the Shell Rock River Watershed webpage.

Mail or email written comments to Emily Zanon, MPCA, 18 Wood Lake Drive SE, Rochester, MN 55904 by 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 24. Call her at 507-206-2613 for more information. Written comments must include a statement of the respondent’s interest in the report, and the action requested of the MPCA, including specific references to sections of the draft document(s) that should be changed, and the reasons for making those changes.

The MPCA may revise the reports based on comments received before sending the TMDL to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval.