Listen: Expensive clean-up (Post) - 1569

As part of the series “Polluted Waters - Costly Cleanup,” MPR’s Tim Post reports on upcoming Minnesota Pollution Control Agency draft list of the state's polluted waters in the next few weeks and the needs to address cleanup.

The purpose of Minnesota's impaired waters list is to put cleanup plans in motion for the state's most polluted streams and lakes. But the cost of such a far-reaching effort is something many say the state is not prepared for.

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

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

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 |

TIM POST: A thin ribbon of wilderness cuts through a busy industrial area in Waite Park, just west of St. Cloud. Scout out a clearing on the edge of town, follow a short path through the woods, and you'll find the Sauk River. This river starts at Sauk Centre. It meanders across the rural dairy country of Stearns County. After 90 river miles, it empties into the Mississippi at St. Cloud. Julie Klocker has canoed this river many times.

JULIE KLOCKER: It's like this jewel of wilderness in the middle of an area that's rapidly urbanizing.

TIM POST: Standing by the river, under a thick canopy of trees, this does make for a tranquil scene. But a close-up look shows problems with the water. As the river flows swiftly by, it's light brown in color, like coffee with cream.

Julie Klocker is a fan of this stretch of river but admits it has problems. She should know. She's with the Sauk River Watershed District, an organization charged with monitoring the 1,000 square miles of rivers and lakes in the region.

She says this river is polluted with sediment, phosphorus, nitrates, and fecal coliform bacteria. The pollution comes from failing septic systems, leaking livestock feedlots, and urban runoff. Klocker says whatever is in this water at this point comes from hundreds of streams and lakes draining into the Sauk.

JULIE KLOCKER: So what you see here is, yeah, that's-- we've created this, in a large part.

TIM POST: Klocker says we, meaning anyone who lives in the watershed. This river is so polluted, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency considers it too dirty to safely swim and fish. Klocker's organization has spent 20 years trying to improve the Sauk River.

They've paid farmers to take land out of production near the river, creating a buffer that prevents runoff and soaks up pollutants. They've offered low-interest loans to homeowners so they can fix up leaking septic systems. In all, the group has spent nearly $4 million. But Klocker says that's pocket change compared to what they really need.

JULIE KLOCKER: Hundreds of millions of dollars just for this watershed. Sometimes you deal with it best by not thinking of the magnitude of the problem and the need that's out there.

TIM POST: The MPCA has studied less than a fourth of the state's waterways. So no one is sure just how bad the pollution problem really is. But state officials estimate that somewhere between 30% and 40% of Minnesota's lakes and rivers are significantly polluted. And since Minnesota has nearly 12,000 lakes and almost 70,000 miles of rivers and streams, the cleanup cost is hard to comprehend. Assistant PCA Commissioner Lisa Thorvig offers up a staggering figure.

LISA THORVIG: And we estimated a need of about $3 billion to clean up our lakes and rivers and streams from nonpoint source pollution.

TIM POST: Nonpoint source pollution is hard to track down. It's the little things people do that end up hurting water quality. It can come from farm field runoff but also when someone fertilizes their lawn or washes their car on the driveway.

Cleaning up nonpoint source pollution is expensive. Dredging doesn't work because you can't scoop contaminants out of a river. The pollution spigot has to be turned off. That means working with each landowner along a waterway to stop polluted runoff from their property, and that can get costly. It's something Thorvig says the MPCA only spends $7 million a year on now.

LISA THORVIG: So clearly, we will and are falling behind. And really, there's very little money available for the cleanup, which is the biggest need. If you list waters and you study them and you know what the plan is, but there is no funding to actually clean up the waters, that's really not what Minnesota wants either.

TIM POST: Thorvig says the plan to clean up Minnesota's polluted lakes and rivers needs to include a lot of different organizations and people. And all of the money doesn't need to come from the state. Money can be used strategically to leverage further grants from the federal government. Cleanup efforts will also rely on the occasional donation of money and lots of volunteer work.

Mary Hoppe is one of those folks who's doing her part to protect the river near her home. Hoppe lives south of New Munich in central Minnesota, on several acres of land bordered by the twisting Sauk River. Unlike the Sauk's muddy appearance downstream, here the river flows much cleaner. It's so clear in spots, you can see pebbles on the river bottom.

MARY HOPPE: It's beautiful. Water is always so serene and calming. And it's just such a nice environment to be around it. It's kind of an emotional thing, I think.

TIM POST: When Hoppe first moved here in the late '90s, she noticed a big problem with erosion along the riverbanks. Every spring, drifts of ice would gouge at the land, pulling chunks of soil into the water. Two local soil and water groups paid about $10,000 to shore up Hoppe's riverside land. They lined the riverbank with rock and logs to prevent erosion.

Hoppe has contributed plenty of her own resources too. She spent hundreds of hours over the last couple of years, planting and maintaining native flowers to create a buffer strip between her land and the river. She figures she's planted between 500 and 600 prairie plants.

MARY HOPPE: Well, I'll put it this way, it's a little less than $6,000. So it's not a cheap project to do, really.

TIM POST: Although it's a major commitment for one landowner, it's hard to see how a project like this will make a difference, considering the miles and miles of polluted waterways in Minnesota. That's something state environmental officials are mindful of. They don't want potential volunteers to be overwhelmed by the list of polluted waters or its multibillion-dollar cleanup cost.

MPCA officials say they're confident cleaning up Minnesota's pollution is something the state can handle. And they're quick to point out success stories, like the Minneapolis chain of lakes-- Cedar Lake, Brownie Lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Harriet, and Lake Calhoun.

SARA APLIKOWSKI: We're at Lake Calhoun, which is one of the jewels of the Minneapolis park system. It's a wonderful spot. You can see the downtown skyline. But yet we're in a park setting with green grass and trees and a beautiful lake.

TIM POST: Sara Aplikowski sits on a bench facing Lake Calhoun. Joggers and even a few sunbathers are taking advantage of a warm autumn day near the lake's Thomas Beach. Aplikowski is the water coordinator for the Minneapolis Parks Board. She points to Lake Calhoun as an example that polluted waterways can be cleaned up.

In the '80s, people were concerned about phosphorus levels, shoreline erosion, and other pollution problems in this lake. Over the past two decades, the lake has been cleaned up. Chemical treatments got rid of the lake's phosphorus. And stormwater ponds have filtered the urban runoff from surrounding residential neighborhoods. Now, Aplikowski says Lake Calhoun's water quality has improved.

SARA APLIKOWSKI: It's been a very successful project. And I think people in Minneapolis are very proud of it.

TIM POST: Lake Calhoun's cleanup cost a little over $12 million. But the work has kept the lake off the state's list of severely polluted waters. Nearby, Lake of the Isles, which has made the list in the past, also went through a similar cleanup. Aplikowski thinks that lake has improved enough to be removed from the next MPCA list.

Even though they cite some success stories, environmental officials warn Minnesota's battle against pollution is going to be long and expensive. It took 150 years to pollute the water. Some warn it could take 150 more to clean it up. I'm Tim Post, 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"/>