Listen: Impaired water(gunderson)-2194

As part of the series “Polluted Waters - Costly Cleanup,” MPR’s Dan Gunderson reports on federal Clean Water Act and the pressure for Minnesota to fulfill those testing and clean up requirements.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is releasing an updated list of polluted streams, rivers, and lakes, known officially as "impaired waters." It's expected several hundred impaired waters will be added to the list. It's estimated up to 40 percent of Minnesota lakes and rivers are polluted. Federal law requires the state to monitor polluted waters and develop a cleanup plan for those that don't meet standards. But there's not enough money to test or clean up the water.

This is part one of a five-part series on impaired Minnesota waters.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:


2005 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, Series - Large Market Radio category

2006 MNSPJ Page One Award, third place in Radio – In Depth – Over 50,000 category


text | pdf |

DAN GUNDERSON: The Federal Clean Water Act says the state is responsible for testing lakes and rivers to see if they're clean enough for drinking, swimming, and fishing. It's a daunting task. Minnesota has a lot of water. For example, there are 92,000 miles of rivers and streams in Minnesota. If 40% are impaired, that's nearly 37,000 miles of polluted rivers and streams. So far, less than 10% of Minnesota waterways have been given a pollution checkup.

The Department of Natural Resources, the agriculture department, and local watershed groups all have some role in water monitoring. But the primary responsibility falls on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Standing at the rail of a bridge over the Red River of the north, Tim Olson prepares to drop a clear plastic tube into the river. It's attached to a rope. The ends of the tube are open. After it disappears beneath the surface of the reddish brown water, he trips a latch that snaps the ends of the tube closed.

TIM OLSON: And there's our sample.

DAN GUNDERSON: Tim Olson is a college student who spent the summer and early fall collecting river data for the MPCA. He's checking turbidity or how clear the water is. Cloudy, dirty-looking water is often a sign of pollution. He's also measuring the oxygen and phosphorus levels in the water. He fills out a form that rates this stretch of the river.

TIM OLSON: I would say probably number four, no swimming, but boating can obviously be done here. I personally wouldn't want to swim in this.

DAN GUNDERSON: This is the first step in identifying polluted waters, documenting the pollution in the water. If the water consistently fails to meet state standards for things like turbidity, phosphorous, and low oxygen levels, it's added to the impaired waters list. But collecting all of this data is time-consuming and expensive. The MPCA says it doesn't have nearly enough staff to monitor 92,000 miles of rivers and some 14,000 lakes. So the agency is relying more often on volunteers to test lakes and rivers.

JIM ZIEGLER: We use data from just about anybody as long as that data can be used, if it's collected with the right equipment, done in the right manner.

DAN GUNDERSON: Jim Ziegler is a watershed unit supervisor for the MPCA in Northern Minnesota. He says data collected by volunteers is a critical part of the Impaired Waters Program.

JIM ZIEGLER: It can be watershed district. It can be a school district. It could be another state agency. Just about anybody, if we have good samples, can submit the data, and we would use that data for this program. So when we talk about who's contributing, it's a really wide range of folks that are doing that.

DAN GUNDERSON: But city officials around the state are concerned about data collected by volunteers. Many point to Grand Rapids as an example of what they see as a flaw in the system. Jim Ackerman is manager of the Grand Rapids Wastewater Treatment Facility. The treatment plant is just a stone's throw from the impaired stretch of the Mississippi River.

JIM ACKERMAN: The stretch of the Mississippi begins at the Blandin Dam, and it's about two miles to where the Prairie River comes in. That's the stretch that right now is on the impaired waters list.

DAN GUNDERSON: Ackerman hopes this stretch of the Mississippi will be taken off the impaired waters list this year. It was first added to the list in 1998. That's when a group of high school students collected a series of tests or data points from the river. They found dissolved oxygen levels that were below state standards.

JIM ACKERMAN: You know, we took it very serious that we were on this list, so we started taking more tests. We had taken some tests, and there's probably hundreds of data points that have been taken since that summer. And we have not been able to duplicate those low readings, and neither has the MPCA.

DAN GUNDERSON: Since officials couldn't come up with the same test results as the students found, Grand Rapids challenged the impaired waters listing. MPCA staff agree that stretch of the Mississippi should be taken off the list. To make it official, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency would need to approve the change. Jim Ackerman says it's taken several years to correct what he sees as a mistake.

JIM ACKERMAN: There's time and money that would be better spent. Resources are limited, and let's spend our time and money where it makes a difference, not chasing something that really isn't there.

DAN GUNDERSON: MPCA staff say the Grand Rapids case is a good example of how the impaired waters process is evolving. If the agency were given the same volunteer data today, it's unlikely they would list the Grand Rapids reach of the Mississippi as impaired. Instead, they would flag the area, and do their own testing, and try to validate the data collected by the students.

The MPCA is expanding its use of water quality data collected by volunteers. Officials say it's the only way to effectively monitor Minnesota rivers and lakes. But monitoring the water may be the easy part. Once a lake or stream is added to the impaired waters list, then the state must develop a cleanup plan. That cleanup plan is called a TMDL.

TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load. Think of it as a pollution budget. First, each source of pollution is identified. Then each source needs to reduce pollution until water quality standards are met. Deciding who reduces pollution by how much is called load allocation. That's where the process becomes a blend of science and politics. There can be disagreements about how scientific data is collected and how it's interpreted.

MPCA Red River Basin coordinator Molly MacGregor understands the complex process. She's been working on a cleanup plan for part of the Otter Tail River for the past two years. MacGregor says it takes more than science to decide how to reduce pollution.

MOLLY MACGREGOR: Those are technical issues, but they're also political. And that's why it's so important to have this foundation of participation with the local units of government and the citizens and the stakeholders because ultimately, they're the ones who use the river who will be affected by anything, any need to reduce loads.

DAN GUNDERSON: A critical part of this process is deciding where the pollution comes from. There are two broad categories. Point source pollution comes from a specific source, like a sewage treatment plant. Runoff from farm fields and lawns is called non-point source pollution. The MPCA says non-point source pollution accounts for 86% of the pollution in Minnesota rivers and lakes.

Point sources like sewage treatment plants are licensed and regulated. It's relatively easy to enforce pollution standards on those facilities. But non-point source pollution, like runoff from farm fields, is not regulated. So the MPCA can't enforce pollution standards. Instead, they rely on people to make changes voluntarily. For instance, they asked farmers to reduce erosion and plant buffer strips of grass and trees along rivers and streams. That approach worries the easily identified and regulated polluters like industry and sewage treatment plants. They fear they'll get stuck with most of the bill for reducing pollution.

Bruce Nelson is President of the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, a group represents water treatment plant operators across the state. Nelson says there's a troubling scenario for cities. They could be forced to spend millions of dollars to reduce the pollution they put into water. But if non-point source pollution isn't cleaned up, it's likely the water will still be polluted.

BRUCE NELSON: Do people contribute to that implementation plan, and do those waters become attaining, or do we just have a lot of nice studies and implementation plans laying around gathering dust? You spend all that money, and you're left 10, 15, 20 years later with some improvement but still an impaired waterbody.

DAN GUNDERSON: For now, the MPCA will depend on voluntary actions to reduce non-point source pollution. Assistant MPCA Commissioner Lisa Thorvig says she thinks that approach will work. If it doesn't, she says, the agency may have to consider regulations on non-point source pollution. But she says such regulations may not even be realistic. How would the agency enforce pollution regulations across the Minnesota landscape, she asks, when it doesn't have enough staff to do basic monitoring of rivers and lakes?

The cleanup planning process is lengthy, expensive, and often controversial. Minnesota has completed only a handful of plans. Dozens wait to be done. And in the meantime, Minnesota waterways are growing more polluted. The MPCA now spends about $8 million a year on impaired waters. The MPCA has asked for $80 million a year. But agency officials say to address all the polluted waterways would take $270 million a year.

Earlier this year, the legislature rejected a plan to raise new revenue for impaired waters. MPCA Supervisor Jim Ziegler says each year, the agency falls farther behind.

JIM ZIEGLER: If we keep listing them at the rate we're listing them and the funding for doing the work doesn't change and the amount of people out there doing the work doesn't change, yeah, we're going to have a backlog. I'm already concerned with the amount that we have on the list.

DAN GUNDERSON: Ziegler says he hopes as the agency does more cleanup plans, the process will get more efficient and a little faster. MPCA Assistant Commissioner Lisa Thorvig says the backlog is so large the state is not meeting federal requirements for completing cleanup plans. There could be federal sanctions if the state doesn't clean up polluted water. But Thorvig says one of the biggest concerns is that polluted waterways will restrict growth and development in Minnesota. The courts have already ruled one Minnesota city can't expand its sewage treatment plant because there's no plan in place to clean up an impaired body of water downstream.

LISA THORVIG: What we do now with our water will greatly affect our flexibility and our choices in the future.

DAN GUNDERSON: Lisa Thorvig says there's a laundry list of complex issues swirling around the Impaired Waters Program. Who should monitor the water? How should the cleanup responsibilities be divided? Who pays for the cleanup? But she says while those issues are debated, water pollution gets worse.

LISA THORVIG: And in some cases, we might not be able to clean up our water bodies if they get to a point where they're so polluted, there just may not be an ability to restore them all the way back to where they need to be to meet water quality standards.

DAN GUNDERSON: It's estimated up to 40% of all Minnesota rivers, streams, and lakes don't meet water quality standards. The final bill for restoring the state's signature resource may be in the billions of dollars. Reporting from Moorhead, Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>