Forum focuses on nonpoint pollution of Minnesota's waters

Is Minnesota making progress toward cleaning up the 40 percent of its rivers and lakes that suffer from some type of pollution that makes then unfit for swimming or fishing or inhospitable to the aquatic species that live in them?

Are the Legislature and state agencies on the right track toward spending the estimated $3.25 billion that a sales tax increase last year will yield over 25 years for protecting and restoring water?

About 100 people gathered Tuesday, Oct. 20, at a forum to ask, and try to answer, those questions.

The forum was sponsored by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative and hosted by the Freshwater Society at the Gray Freshwater Center in Excelsior. To view participants’ presentations, click here.

The participants in the forum included representatives of government, business, agriculture and dozens of environmental groups.

mei forum

Mike Harley, MEI executive director, moderates panel discussion. Panelists, from left, are: Gaylen Reetz, Julie Blackburn, Deb Swackhamer
and state Rep. Paul Torkelson.

And the answers that several speakers gave to those two questions were:

  • Yes, Minnesota is making progress on protecting and cleaning up its rivers and lakes, but much of the toughest part of the work – changing human behavior to cure unregulated, diffuse pollution from multiple sources – is yet to come.

  • It is too early to say whether the three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax increase that Minnesota voters approved last fall will produce significant, long-term improvements in water quality.

Two members of a four-person panel invited to discuss the state’s water clean-up program clashed over whether voluntary measures will be sufficient to achieve necessary reductions in unregulated “nonpoint source” pollution, especially the sediment, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that flow into rivers from farm fields.

At present, federal law requires states to assess all surface waters for pollution and to determine the sources of the pollution. Industries, sewage treatment plants, some feedlots and city stormwater systems can be required — through operating permits — to reduce their pollution. But neither federal law nor Minnesota statutes demand similar reductions in unpermitted pollution from farms and homes.

Deb Swackhamer, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center and chair of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency science advisory board, argued that regulation of that nonpoint pollution probably is necessary.

“Our toolbox is about half-empty when it comes to dealing with nonpoint source pollution,” she said.

“You’ve really got to invoke the R-word,” Swackhamer said. “There needs to be a revisiting of how you regulate nonpoint.”

State Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican from Nelson Township in Watonwan County, disagreed with Swackhamer.

“Bringing down the hammer of regulation on such a broad population is extremely difficult,” Torkelson said. “Who’s going to enforce it? Are you going to hire fertilizer police?”

Torkelson, a farmer, said farmers have made dramatic progress in reducing pollution over the last 25 years. “We need to work with these land owners, not against them,” he said.

And Torkelson argued that proposed standards for reducing sediment in the Minnesota River may be too high because of the geology of the river valley. “We can not turn the Minnesota River into the St. Croix River, no matter how hard we try,” he said.

When Torkelson suggested that “too high a bar” was being set for the Minnesota River, Swackhamer responded: “Saving the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t seem like too high a bar.”

She was referring to the oxygen-depleted zone in the Gulf that has been blamed on farm fertilizers flowing down the Mississippi River.

Both Swackhamer and Torkelson are members of the Clean Water Council that advises the Minnesota Legislature and governor on water issues.

Gaylen Reetz, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency director, and Julie Blackburn, the assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, said that, even without regulation, citizens in some parts of the state have undertaken voluntary campaigns that yielded significant water quality improvements.

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