Listen: Whitewater River

As part of MPR's “Trouble in the Water” series, MPR’s Mark Zdechlik reports on the Whitewater River, a waterway that symbolizes trouble in Minnesota waters.

The Whitewater, southeastern Minnesota's iconic trout stream, is known nationally for its pristine beauty and fishing. Yet the rains turn it, temporarily, into a kill zone due to pollutants flowing in from area agriculture.

Report is first in an eight-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


text | pdf |

CATHY WURZER: Now you know Minnesota's moniker is the land of 10,000 lakes. But Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 lakes and nearly 70,000 miles of rivers and streams. But there's trouble in the water. Regulators say 40% of the lakes and streams are polluted.

Today, MPR News launches a series of reports on the threats to our water quality. We begin with Mark Zdechlik, who takes us to the southeastern part of Minnesota.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Down a steep road that cuts sharply through thick woods below acre after acre of farm fields, the scene in the Whitewater River Valley is breathtaking. Brown trout are feasting on a spring caddis fly hatch in the south branch of the river.

VAUGHN SNOOK: Wow. They're feeding really heavy down there. See all that, those little splashes?

MARK ZDECHLIK: That's Vaughn Snook. He helps manage southeastern Minnesota's fishery for the Department of Natural Resources.

VAUGHN SNOOK: See those rises? That's pretty cool.

MARK ZDECHLIK: We're 45 minutes northeast of Rochester, just outside the small farm town of Altura. Today, the Whitewater is running crystal clear here, but Snook says that's not always the case. When it rains, whatever's on the fields above, manure, chemical, soil, it can easily make its way into these waters.

VAUGHN SNOOK: Water flows downhill.

MARK ZDECHLIK: A mile or so upstream, cows graze along the Whitewater. They also defecate on the riverbank.

VAUGHN SNOOK: If we were to come back here when we had a 2-inch rainfall, this water that's in front of us would not be clear. It certainly wouldn't be off color if not even muddy. So it just depends on where the rain fell and what had recently happened up top.

MARK ZDECHLIK: In addition to all of the trout, the picture-perfect Whitewater has substantial pollution problems many linked to agriculture. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found several common pollutants in the river Among them, fecal coliform bacteria and nitrates, which can cause health problems for pregnant women and infants.

After heavy rainfall in the middle of last summer, there was a massive, inexplicable fish kill. As many as 10,000 fish in this stretch of the Whitewater quickly died. An extensive multi-agency investigation failed to identify a cause. Officials suggested a combination of biological, chemical, and environmental conditions could have been to blame.

That did not satisfy some, including geologist and environmental consultant Jeff Broberg, who lives along and fishes the Whitewater. He says a major fish kill in a stream pristine enough for trout should alarm people throughout Minnesota.

JEFF BROBERG: Because it's clean water. It's a trout stream.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Broberg says regulators are not protecting water from increasing farm threats.

JEFF BROBERG: We've gotten to the point now where the industrialization of the agricultural process is just taking over the entire ecology.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokeswoman Cathy Rofshus says there's no disputing the correlation between farming and water pollution.

CATHY ROFSHUS: Water quality is usually exceptionally high in the northeast part of the state and tends to degrade as you go to the southwest.

SPEAKER: Directly related to the amount of farming that's taking place.


MARK ZDECHLIK: Agriculture may be the biggest, but it's not the only culprit. Leaking septic systems, mercury in rain, and urban runoff also contribute. The Health Department has detected nitrate pollution in more than 8,000 new drinking water wells, and more than 1,000 of them had nitrate levels deemed unsafe for infants and pregnant women.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is trying to test as many as 70,000 rural wells for nitrates by 2019. Preliminary results found 1 in 10 unsafe. Ag Commissioner Dave Frederickson calls that distressing but not surprising.

DAVE FREDERICKSON: In some of the more intensely cropped acres in Minnesota, we're seeing nitrate levels two, three, and four times the drinking water standard.

MARK ZDECHLIK: The MPCA is examining all 80 major watersheds in Minnesota one by one to document water quality. Agency pollution control specialist Shayna Keasley says regulators used to study only water with known problems.

SHAYNA KEASLEY: We know more now than we've ever known about the conditions of our waterways.

MARK ZDECHLIK: And there's a lot of bad news. In urban and farm areas, fewer than half of the lakes are considered fully swimmable because of phosphate and bacteria contamination. In farm country, there tend to be high levels of fertilizer and suspended soils in the water, which choke out aquatic life and cut into recreational opportunities. Fish, in nearly all of the Minnesota lakes and rivers studied thus far, have the toxin mercury in their tissue. Keasley says Minnesota can't address water pollution without changing farming.

SHAYNA KEASLEY: It's not to point a finger at them, but when you have a large majority of the land in Ag, then a lot of the solutions are going to have to come from Ag.

MARK ZDECHLIK: State officials want farmers to set aside land for buffer zones to help keep soil and chemicals out of waterways. Many farmers are doing much more to reduce pollution, but many feel vilified and are defensive Among them is Dennis Utke.

DENNIS UTKE: Don't point that finger because you got three pointing back at you.

MARK ZDECHLIK: At a popular lunch spot not far from his home in Dover, Utke says everyone is responsible for water pollution, not just farmers. He points to overfertilized lawns and runoff from parking lots. As farmers push back, the list of contaminated waters is growing.

Back down at the Whitewater, Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who consults on water protection, is frustrated.

PAUL WOTZKA: The Whitewater is one of the most studied watersheds in all of Minnesota. To see fish kills in the Whitewater in 2015 is just, we're going backwards. There's just no way to get around it.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Wotzka is a former state agriculture department and MPCA employee. He was fired almost 10 years ago for allegedly taking documents from the Ag department. Wotzka thinks his termination was retribution for raising concerns about atrazine, a widely used herbicide turning up in Minnesota waters. Wotzka says Minnesota's management of water quality is too fragmented.

PAUL WOTZKA: MPCA has got the water quality piece except for pesticides. MDA has the pesticide piece. DNR has the fisheries piece and the water quantity piece. And so when you look at water resources, you've got to look at the whole picture.

MARK ZDECHLIK: And Wotzka says the same applies to environmental programs farmers join or leave depending on crop prices. He says slashing property taxes for farmers who permanently adopt better practices could yield better long term results. Dennis Utke welcomes that idea. Changing farm practices to reduce pollution cuts into a farmer's bottom line. And Utke says there's only one thing that can make it affordable.

DENNIS UTKE: Money. Point blank money. Ooh. Brook trout.

MARK ZDECHLIK: More than nine months after the fish kill in the whitewater, a DNR crew led by Von Snook is capturing and counting fish to see whether the population is recovering.

VON SNOOK: Nice female Brown trout.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Snook likes what he's seen.

VON SNOOK: There's no bad news here. This is all good news so far.

MARK ZDECHLIK: While researchers couldn't pinpoint the cause of the fish kill, Snook says the die-off raised awareness about threats to water quality.

VON SNOOK: You can sense the tension.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Snook says more people than ever have been calling his office with water quality concerns.

VON SNOOK: People questioning, you know, why is that truck there? What's this doing? They don't have blinders on when they drive down the road anymore. They're kind of looking around and curious to know why somebody parked somewhere, and there's a pipe going into the creek.

MARK ZDECHLIK: Heightened awareness could help regulators with one of their greatest challenges getting people to understand just how fragile Minnesota's abundant water resources are. Covering the environment, I'm Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio News. Altura, Minnesota.


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"/>