MANKATO — Jerry Pietz remembers going to the banks of the Blue Earth River and casting a fishing lure to the other bank.
“Now it’s 100 yards across. There used to be beautiful sandbars, now there’s none,” said Pietz, who has lived below Skyline for 25 years.
Pietz was one of a steady stream of residents who came to an open house to hear from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff about several new reports that detail the overload of sediment, nutrients and bacteria in area rivers. The public can comment on the reports until late September, after which the MPCA will send final plans for lowering pollutants to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pietz said the volume of water coming down the river has increased dramatically, a problem the MPCA said is the chief concern as the high waters carve out river banks and deposit dirt and pollutants into the water.
Pietz planted long prairie grasses along a low-lying area next to the river that he said holds water during flooding. But the river has cut into banks below his neighbor’s home and has cut through woodland, downing trees.
While increased precipitation from climate change has fueled higher river volumes, Pietz said the man-made portion of the problem is largely tied to intensive agriculture.
“I think the biggest culprit is probably farm tiling.”
Keith Brekken, a farmer and former Watonwan County Commissioner, lives along the Watonwan River north of St. James.
“We have more and more big trees falling down and then the banks erode. And we have more rain, which we can’t do anything about.”
He’s part of a multi-county group that is looking for solutions. “It used to be just counties working on things, but now it’s watersheds.”
Brekken has 60 acres of vegetation along the river in the Reinvest in Minnesota program. “When it floods it holds the water back.”
He said people need to understand the massive economic impact and real estate taxes that come from farming, but said there are ways to store more water on the landscape, including new styles of farm drainage systems.
“Holding back the water, that’s the big thing.”
Bruno Gad, 80, moved to Mankato four years ago from St. Cloud and spent 50 years involved with water quality advocacy.
“I’m not an environmentalist,” said the retired chemical waste treatment operator. “I’m a practical person. If we want to leave something for our kids and grandkids we need to do something.”
But he said his long fight for better water didn’t produce the results he’d hoped for. “In 50 years we’ve gone backwards.”
Gad said the scientific studies about what’s wrong with the rivers are fine, but action is needed.
“The PCA says they have a strategy but you need a concrete action plan. Not everyone will be happy but that’s how you get things done.”
Scott Sparlin, a river advocate from New Ulm, said he’s glad to see the MPCA give detailed reports of the problems and suggested changes.
“People need to better understand what the data is saying and that there are things we can do about it.”
Sparlin said that while more rain falls, it’s human development and land use practices that have had major effects.
While the challenges are big, Sparlin is optimistic. “There is a lot of opportunity for water storage on the land. There are lots of places to do it, we just have to find the biggest and the best and that don’t affect our agriculture.”
He said all taxpayers need to help provide compensation for farmers who turn cropland into water storage areas.
Wayne Cords, regional MPCA manager in Mankato, told visitors that wholesale changes need to be made to improve the river, from cities and homeowners making better choices to farmers using best management practices. He said farmers are not the bad guys, it’s just that farming dominates the landscape.
“No farmer wakes up and says ‘I want to ruin the river.’ They’re trying to do the best they can, but we need to do better.”