Minnesota River Congress Staying The Course For Clean Water Goals

Citizens from throughout the Minnesota River basin are continuing to work for clean water as part of the Minnesota River Congress. Canoeists navigate an island in the river along the Renville and Redwood counties corridor.

REDWOOD FALLS – Twenty five years after Governor Arne Carlson famously called for making the Minnesota River “fishable and swimmable’’ in 10 years, the goals are far from achieved.

But that hasn’t deterred those who remain committed to them.

And, they have some reason for optimism.

“Anecdotally, it’s better,’’ said Scott Sparlin of the state of river this many years later. Sparlin, of New Ulm, spoke as one of the organizers for the eighth Minnesota River Congress. Held May 18 in New Ulm, the River Congress brought together dozens of people from throughout the basin who continue to work for a cleaner Minnesota River under the umbrella of this citizen’s organization.

Kim Musser, director of the Water Resource Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato, offered reasons for optimism in a “state of the river’’ address.

The phosphorus load from wastewater treatment plants has been reduced by 35 percent, she pointed out.

The 100,000 acres of land permanently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program have significantly contributed to water quality improvements by reducing nutrient and sediments loads throughout the basin. A second opportunity to enroll land in a CREP program is now underway.

Changes are happening on the agricultural landscape that are benefiting water quality as well. Warren Formo, director of the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resource Center, introduced two of those making the changes possible.

The goals set by Governor Arne Carlson in 1992 to make the Minnesota River “fishable and swimmable” in 10 years remain unmet.

Grant Breitkreutz told how he and his wife, Dawn, have improved profitability at their Stoney Creek farm in Renville County by adopting practices that also greatly benefit the landscape. They’ve committed to virtually 100 percent use of cover crops on their cropped acres. They use intensive, rotational grazing practices on the pasture land for their cow-calf operation.

“It’s all about soil health,’’ said Breitkreutz.  He showed photographs of how the efforts have improved the permeability of the soil, keeping water and nutrients at work to boost the productivity of the land and improve the bottom line.

These are benefits that growers with the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative are realizing by using cover crops as well. Todd Geselius, vice president of agriculture for SMBSC, said the cooperative began urging its producers to use cover crops as part of an agreement allowing it to expand operations at the factory in Renville. The intent is to reduce phosphorus runoff into the Minnesota River by using cover crops to hold soil in fields.

Initially, the cooperative was happy to see about 8,000 acres of cover crops seeded, according to Geselius. But in a few years, producers and the cooperative realized that the cover crops were doing much more than reducing phosphorus loss. The producers using cover crops were realizing an average of $50 in increased revenue from each of the acres seeded to cover crops. Not bad for a $4 an acre investment in seed, he pointed out.

Word gets around: Now, producers seed cover crops on roughly 100,000 to 105,000 of the 120,000 acres they raise sugar beets on each year, according to Geselius. “Our growers make more money and they are better environmental stewards,’’ he said.

Of course, there still remain major challenges. Pat Baskfield, hydrologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has been monitoring water quality in the lower Minnesota River for three decades.

To know how serious the issues remain, he pointed out that the Minnesota River waters mix with those from the Mississippi and St Croix Rivers. When those mixed waters reach Lock and Dam #3 on the Mississippi River, 75 percent of the pollutant load can be attributed to the Minnesota River. Fertile, organic soils, tile drainage systems that carry away nitrogen, and erosion are all factors, he pointed out.  

Nitrogen and sediment loads are the biggest issues. The Minnesota River continues to carry heavy loads of soil washed from fields, riverbanks and gulleys and ravines. The loss of wetlands and the proliferation of artificial drainage make for a flashy hydrology. “More and more water in this system than it originally evolved to carry,’’ said Baskfield.

Dr. Peter Wilcock, a soil scientist with Utah State University, told the audience that the river’s excessive sediment loads were originally coming from a prairie landscape tilled for crop production. Field erosion has stabilized since the 1930’s, but the soil coming from streambanks and ravines has increased.

Most of the load comes during brief periods when the heaviest rains fall. Sixty years ago the basin would see an average of one gully washer rain event per season. With a wetter climate, there are five such heavy rain events each season. Those big events produce two thirds of the sediment loss experienced in a year, he said.

Wilcock said scientists who have been working on the erosion issues have identified a variety of steps to address the problems. Work to stabilize bluffs that are vulnerable to erosion and storing more water in the upper watershed are the most cost effective strategies, according to Wilcock. We need to reduce peak flows and store more water in the upper watershed, he said.

The Blue Earth and Watonwan River sub-basins are responsible for the greatest share of soil erosion, and that’s where many erosion control strategies would be best directed, he explained.

Yet the speakers made it clear that it will take a variety of efforts on lands throughout the basin to achieve Carlson’s goals announced 25 years ago. Two years after Carlson announced his goals for a cleaner river, Musser said a Citizen’s Commission identified what needs to be done to achieve them. They hold true yet today. “It’s really dependent on a lot of voluntary action by citizens, landowners and communities,’’ she said, quoting the commission’s findings.

Erosion from the banks of streams and ravines are a major source of sediment. This is a view of the Yellow Medicine River in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.