The Free Press
A recent report on improvements to water quality in the Minnesota River comes as welcome news but also as an important reminder that there's more to be done.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reported an August test of the Minnesota River showed that even at low levels and river stress, there remains enough oxygen to sustain aquatic life.
That wasn't always the case.
A plan put in place more than a decade ago encouraged sewage treatment plants along the river to reduce their discharges of phosphorus, an oxygen depleting element that can choke off aquatic species.
Since 2004, the PCA has encouraged/required the upgrade of some 100 treatment plants along the Minnesota River. Some cities like Mankato were way ahead of the game and were proactive early on. The city upgraded its wastewater treatment plant in 2000 and added a water reclamation facility in 2006. The system keeps Mankato well in compliance with state and federal water standards and allows the city to sell phosphorus "credits" to industry and other municipalities along the river. St. Peter also upgraded its plant in 2004 to meet new and tougher future guidelines on phosphorus and wastewater.
Some cities had to invest in new technologies and spend millions upgrading plants, and some have had to raise utility rates as a result. But all of these efforts taken together have reduced river phosphorus by half since the early 1990s.
While there remains much work to do on the Minnesota River, the cooperative efforts of the state regulators and cities shows how an encouragement/requirement approach can work.
The state's allowing a phosphorus credit trading system, for example, allowed cities to ease into building new expensive wastewater treatment plants. And as plants were built, cities could get a blue print of what kind of plant worked best and was most efficient.
The state regulations were not so onerous, they made it impossible for cities to comply. As a result, the river quality was improved.
In the future, regulators and their municipal and industrial partners should look at the issues of agriculture runoff and sedimentation.
Some have suggested an encouragement voluntary system that was applied to the wastewater treatment issue may not be enough to get farmers to put buffer strips along their ditches, as required by law, and give up the valuable farmland that is reaping huge financial rewards with high commodity prices.
But this wastewater treatment program proved to be effective. We're moving in the right direction on cleanup of the Minnesota River.