Does Minnesota have the solution to better water quality?
by Donnelle Eller
8:08 a.m. CDT May 22, 2016
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where water recreation is a $10 billion-a-year industry, Minnesotans have seen many of their waterways slowly and inexorably become choked and polluted.
The state’s Pollution Control Agency released a report last year that found that at least half of Minnesota’s lakes in watersheds with heavy farming and urban activity weren’t swimmable because of harmful algae outbreaks fueled by excess phosphorus. And high bacteria levels made more than half the streams in those areas unswimmable.
The findings drove home what Minnesota and other surrounding farm states, including Iowa, already knew — they had to figure out ways to significantly reduce nutrient runoff that jeopardized their lakes and rivers.
Minnesota’s approach, fueled with about $100 million annually in dedicated funding, has resulted in perhaps the Midwest’s most comprehensive water quality program — with buffers required on public waterways and ditches, comprehensive testing and monitoring, a watershed strategy designed to cut runoff from rural and urban areas, and established water quality goals.
It’s a more aggressive strategy than Iowa employs, even though both states rely on the voluntary cooperation of farmers.
But Minnesota faces a mountain of uncertainty over its prospects for success. And state leaders say widespread conservation adoption is years away.
“It’s definitely too soon to expect to see major changes on the landscape and in the water from this effort,” said Glenn Skuta, a leader at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, pointing to the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy fund, approved in 2008, which partially benefits water quality.
“At the end of 25 years, we can expect to see improvement, but at the same time, it’s not like all the water will suddenly be clean,” he said.
Some environmentalists say traditional farm states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, will never make significant clean-water gains without federal regulations that force farmers to adopt conservation practices.