The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 6, 2011

Special report preview and podcast: From Amber Waves to Muddy Waters

The environmental threat of the Minnesota River

— Here is a preview of an upcoming five-part series on the environmental threat of the Minnesota River

Series can be downloaded by signing onto our replica e-edition of The Free Press.

To hear the Podcast between Free Press Editor Joe Spear and reporter Tim Krohn, click the audio file at the right.


Day 1: Sunday, Dec. 4- Overview: When a river is the threat

In-depth research shows the continued degradation of the Minnesota River and its growing environmental impact on other watersheds.

The issue is creating growing friction between farmers and environmentalists and residents on Lake Pepin who are suffering from the Minnesota River’s pollution.

Scientists point to agriculture as the main culprit, while farmers challenge that assertion with their own research.

Story:  Water runs from fields to rivers with some help: modern day tiling

No one knows how many miles of the plastic and concrete tile exist on farm fields across the Minnesota River watershed, which stretches through 10 million acres of land, 20 percent of the state total.

There’s no real regulation for tiling, and only a few counties keep any records.

Yet, tiling can be done quickly and cheaply and reaps great rewards in terms of crop yields.

Story: Forensic agriculture

Call it “CSI Minnesota River.”

They’re not crime fighters, but top researchers.

Their job is to look for the sources of sediment that annually flows into the Minnesota River and then into the Mississippi. How much comes from the millions of acres of farm land in the watershed and how much from streambanks and ravines?

In the recent past, quantifying where sediment was coming from was very difficult, if not impossible.

But not anymore.


Day 2, Monday, Dec. 5

The muddy Minnesota impacting Lake Pepin

Mike McKay pored through research on the Minnesota River and upper Mississippi and was amazed at the large scope of scientific research that has been done.

He’s also amazed so little has been accomplished when the research is clear on most of the causes.

Minnesota River sediment is filling Lake Pepin at a pace 10-times the natural rate.

“About five years ago the neighborhood people at the mouth of Lake Pepin noticed places you used to be able to jet ski across or take your boat across to Wisconsin — you can’t get there anymore,” says McKay.


Day 3: Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Pollution solutions stymied by money shortages or politics

The state regulations are clear: If you have land in agricultural use along a stream, river or lake, you need to have at least a 50-foot grass buffer strip along the river bank or edge of the lake to reduce erosion, runoff and pollution.

But enforcement of the rule has been nearly nonexistent. Many counties say they simply don’t have the staff or resources to enforce the rules and opposition from landowners can make it an issue elected county commissioners would rather avoid.

Story: Some along the river make efforts to follow the law

When Julee Streit got the letter and aerial photo from Blue Earth County showing a small portion of her property out of compliance with buffer-strip rules, she admits to a bit of anxiety.

“I was surprised. I’d never heard of the law.”

But she sought advice and found local officials easy to work with. She’s one of the few landowners complying with new buffer strip rules.

Story: Counties have the power to enforce laws, but many don’t

When it comes to enforcing the law requiring a 50-foot buffer along streams, rivers and lakes, it falls largely to counties to do the policing.

Virtually none have, but some are starting to.

The reasons for inaction, say county officials, have been a lack of staff and expertise, no easy way to find offenders and no real pressure to crack down.

Day 4: Wednesday, Dec. 7.

Farmers in the cross-hairs

Feeling increasingly in the cross-hairs for fouling the rivers, farm groups have formed a coalition to tell their story.

 “All of us who live in the Minnesota River Valley have a stake in this,” said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition.

Formo argues that data linking drainage to much of the sediment problem are based on relatively new science. And he says there may never be enough proof to pinpoint ag drainage as the primary culprit.

Story: Commissioner has a stake in conservation

Blue Earth County Commissioner Will Purvis knows firsthand about the erosive power of the river.

He lives on the farm site southwest of Vernon Center that has been in his family since 1913.

“We have a 1938 photo of the river channel and compared it to 2009. The river has moved onto our property 350 feet in that time,” Purvis said.

The land along the river was put in the Conservation Reserve Program and now is covered with grass and trees. “We’ve slowed (the erosion) but haven’t eliminated it.”

Purvis has taken a leading role on the County Board in water-related issues, and the county is one of a handful in the state that is more aggressively identifying land along streams and rivers that need to install required buffer strips.

Day 5: Thursday, Dec. 8

Protective buffers are rare, but coming

Few argue there are benefits to grass buffer strips alongside open drainage ditches. They filter out fertilizer and chemicals and can slow erosion and sediment getting into waterways.

But across the countryside there are very few of the recommended 16 1/2-foot strips of grass next to ditches.

That will begin to change as more counties begin taking an action that will trigger language in a state law requiring buffers.

Story: Carp defense not happening on Minnesota

Add giant flying carp to the list of potential dangers to the Minnesota River.

Intense efforts are under way to keep the invasive Asian carp out of Minnesota waters. The fish, which can reach monster size and some which jump into the air when startled, are moving up the Mississippi. State and federal officials, with a mandate by the Legislature, are devising plans to halt or at least slow their migration.

But some say the plans largely ignore keeping the carp out of the Minnesota River.

Story: Alliances may help move the river cleanup discussion

For the past year, a group of conservationists has been inviting farmers to “Friendship Tours” along the Minnesota River and down to Lake Pepin on the Mississippi.

The idea is simple: Get the two sides to talk to each other, find some common ground and lay the groundwork for a working relationship to help determine the problems of the Minnesota River and work together for solutions.