Southeast corner of Minnesota: Watersheds in good shape though some work needed

Contact: Cathy Malakowsky, 507-206-2608

The majority of streams in the Minnesota portions of the Upper Iowa River and Mississippi River-Reno watersheds meet water quality standards, according to new studies by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). These watersheds are located along the borders with Iowa and Wisconsin in southeast Minnesota. The studies are open for public comment through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

While most streams in these watersheds are in good condition for supporting fish, other aquatic life and recreation, there are nine stream sections with bacteria levels too high to meet standards and one with excess levels of sediment. Sediment in the water can make it hard for fish to breathe, find food, and reproduce. Bacteria can make the water unsafe for swimming and other recreational activities.

The MPCA completed two studies for the watersheds. The total maximum daily load (TMDL) study identifies bodies of water that don’t meet water-quality standards (known as “impaired” waters), the sources of pollution, and how much pollution reduction is needed to meet water quality standards. The watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) report recommends ways to protect waters in good condition and improve impaired waters. These reports provide information that can be used to update the Root River One Watershed One Plan, which includes these areas.

The studies are part of the MPCA’s approach to gauging the health of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds. After intensive water monitoring, the agency and partners evaluate biological conditions in lakes and streams. Waters that fail to meet standards are placed on the Impaired Waters List and the agency develops information and strategies that are used to restore impaired waters and protect healthy ones.

The Mississippi River-Reno is a small watershed in Houston County with rolling bluffs and thick woodlands. Many of its streams are spring-fed cold-water systems that support trout fishing. There is no main river in the watershed, just a collection of tributaries that flow directly into the Mississippi River. Forest and pasture are the most prevalent land uses.

While most of the Upper Iowa River watershed is in Iowa, its headwaters are in Minnesota, meaning water conditions in Minnesota impact the river all the way to the Mississippi River. It starts in Mower County, crossing the Minnesota-Iowa border several times through Fillmore and Houston counties before flowing south. An estimated 315,000 angling trips are taken in the watershed each year. Bee Creek, one of its tributaries, is a popular trout-fishing stream that meets Minnesota’s exceptional use standards. Cropland is the dominant land use in the watershed.

Both watersheds feature karst geology, a “porous” topography characterized by abundant sinkholes, springs, caverns, and underground waterways. Protecting water resources in the area can be challenging; pollutants on land can quickly find routes from the surface into groundwater, and from groundwater into streams.

Pollutant sources that are likely contributing to impairments in the watersheds include noncompliant septic systems, livestock, runoff from cropland, and erosion. Landowners and local partners have engaged in good land stewardship practices and water quality improvement projects. The MPCA is recommending further efforts to address existing and potential sources of pollution, including:

  • Agricultural runoff controls such as conservation tillage and cover crops
  • Feedlot runoff controls and proper manure land application
  • Septic system improvements
  • Stream restoration
  • Pasture management
  • Buffers and filter strips
  • Urban stormwater runoff control

The MPCA is asking for public comments on the two reports, which are available on the MPCA web site. Mail or email written comments to Emily Zanon, MPCA, 18 Wood Lake Drive SE, Rochester, MN 55904 by 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. 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