Nitrate in the Mississippi; carp DNA in St. Croix

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Research: Nitrate increasing in Mississippi
The nitrate flowing down the Mississippi River each year and feeding the algae-rich, oxygen-poor “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico increased 9 percent over about the last three decades, a new U.S. Geological Survey analysis concludes.

At Clinton, Iowa — the water sampling site closest to Minnesota for which data were analyzed — the average load of nitrate transported by the river increased 67 percent between 1980 and 2008, to about 242 million pounds per year.

Major findings of the new research were:

  • Despite years of effort by scientists and policy-makers aimed at reducing the nitrogen flowing into the river and then the Gulf, the volume increased, to about 1.9 billion pounds per year in 2008.
  • At Clinton, Iowa, and at Hermann, Mo., on the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi, the average amount of nitrate in the water at any one time and the amount carried downstream on an annual basis increased dramatically. At six other sites in Iowa, Illinois, and Louisiana, nitrate concentrations stayed the same or increased to a lesser degree.
  • Sampling showing that nitrate concentrations increased more in the Mississippi and its tributaries during periods of low water – when much of the rivers’ volume comes from the inflow of groundwater — suggests that nitrate-contaminated groundwater is a significant contributor to nitrate pollution in the rivers. And, because groundwater moves slowly, that means strategies already put into place to reduce nitrate in the rivers may take years to pay dividends.

The new USGS research, published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology,” did not attempt to determine the source of the nitrate in the rivers. But 2008 modeling by the USGS estimated these sources for nitrogen flowing to the Gulf:

  • Farm fields, primarily corn and soybeans, 66 percent.
  • Pasture and range land, 5 percent.
  • Municipal sewage effluent and urban storm water, 9 percent.
  • Atmospheric deposition, 16 percent.
  • Natural land, 4 percent.

The latest USGS research, led by Lori A. Sprague, used sophisticated statistical analysis to evaluate the results of about 3,000 water samples collected at the eight sites between 1980 and 2008 and to even out the big differences that high and low water levels produced in calculations of the total volumes of nitrate carried downriver on an annual basis.

In a USGS news release announcing publication of the new research, Sprague said: “Applying this new model to decades of USGS water quality data allows us to distinguish between the effects of natural changes in precipitation and streamflow and the effects of purposeful changes in the management of nitrate in the basin.”

In an interview, Sprague said she could not say why the analysis showed such a big increase in average nitrate concentrations, and average annual nitrate loads, at Clinton, Iowa.

Read the full report in Environmental Science & Technology. Read a USGS news release on the research. Read a Star Tribune article on it.

Silver carp DNA found in St. Croix
DNA from the invasive silver carp has been found at 22 sites in the St. Croix River, a development that has deepened despair about the imminent arrival of the notorious leaping fish and doubts that state and federal officials can do anything to stop it.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that 22 of 50 water samples taken between St. Croix Falls and Franconia tested positive for silver carp DNA. The samples did not test positive for the other three species of Asian carp that are believed to moving upriver from Illinois, and another 50 samples from the Mississippi River were negative.

The results are not conclusive evidence that the fish are living and breeding in the St. Croix — none has been found in the river — or that they are absent from the Mississippi, DNR officials said. The DNA could have come from dead carp, live carp someone dumped in the river or fish pellets used in hatcheries.

Still, it ratchets up the fear considerably, they said.

“This is disappointing news,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

The four species of Asian carp have caused enormous ecological damage in the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, where they are well established. The carp eat 40 percent of their body weight every day in plankton and bugs, squeezing out every other creature up the food chain, from sunnies to fish-eating birds.
–The Star Tribune

FAQ on Asian carp
Read a question-and-answer primer on Asian carp from Minnesota Public Radio.
–Minnesota Public Radio

Farm Bill forum on Aug. 22
Register now for the forum on the next federal Farm Bill that the Izaak Walton League of America will host Saturday, Aug. 22, in West St. Paul. The Freshwater Society is helping plan and organize the event.

The forum is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required. View the agenda.

Attend the forum, and let your voice be heard on what the next Farm Bill should offer — for farmers, and for the environment.

Report: Canada’s tar sands to increase pollution
The Canadian government has long fought efforts by politicians and environmentalists in other countries, including the United States, to characterize oil sands production as “dirty oil.” But an analysis quietly released late last month by its environmental agency indicates that the tar-like deposits will become an increasingly significant source of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.

Canada’s Emissions Trends,” a peer-reviewed report by the agency, Environment Canada, forecasts that greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands will triple to 92 million metric tons, or 101 million short tons, by 2020 from a base level of 30 million metric tons, or 33 million short tons, in 2005.

The vast majority of oil produced from the deposits is shipped to the United States. The study indicates increased emissions from oil sands will more than offset emission reductions in other areas like electricity generation.
–The New York Times

Panel gives conditional OK for ‘fracking’
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to release vast supplies of natural gas trapped in shale deposits can be conducted in an environmentally responsible way, a federal energy panel has concluded, but only if major steps are taken, including greater transparency by the gas-drilling industry, the close monitoring of groundwater quality, and the adoption of rigorous emissions standards.

The Department of Energy panel – the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee – created in May at the direction of President Obama to study the controversial fracking procedure, released its findings in a report.

The report was hailed by the gas industry as showing that environmental concerns about fracking were exaggerated, but it came under quick fire from environmental groups, who called the panel heavily tilted toward the oil and gas industry and accusing it of “advocacy-based science.” They said the findings could undercut environmental studies already under way.
–The Christian Science Monitor

Fracking’ yields sand boom in Wisconsin
The oil boom has come to western Wisconsin.

But instead of roustabouts and oil rigs, the region is moving big into the business of sand – a special type that’s used to extract oil and natural gas from hard-to-reach subterranean deposits.

At least 20 sand mines and sand processing plants that cater to the oil and gas industry are operating or in the planning stages, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Geologist Bruce Brown of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey calls the business the “bright star” of the state’s mining industry.

“So many people have come so fast that it’s been like a gold rush out there,” Brown said.

But the projects have also sparked controversy over potential environmental threats.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Residents seek zebra mussel inspections
Residents around three lakes that are a quick boat-trailer pull from zebra mussel-infested Lake Minnetonka are digging into their own pockets to staff public boat launches to protect their lakes from the spread of the dreaded aquatic creatures.

They want all boats headed for Lake Minnewashta, Lotus Lake or Christmas Lake inspected for aquatic invasive species before they are launched into the water. They have raised thousands of dollars and, in addition to relying on volunteers, they are paying college students and interns from the Department of Natural Resources.

To streamline their efforts, they are seeking permission from Carver County and the city of Chanhassen to combine inspections for all three lakes at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park. That’s where boaters heading to nearby Christmas Lake or Lotus Lake would get a punch-in code to raise boat ramp gates on those lakes.

Their proposal, conjuring up images of closed ramps that run against Minnesota’s long-standing open lakes access, has stirred emotions and sparked letters to the editor suggesting elitism on the part of lake homeowners.
–The Star Tribune

Zebra mussels explode in Mille Lacs
Huge Lake Mille Lacs — Minnesota’s most popular fishing hot-spot — rocked gently, but beneath the surface was bedlam.

There, on the lake bottom, a population explosion of tiny zebra mussels is occurring that could change the great lake forever.

“It’s a solid carpet of zebra mussels,” shouted Tom Jones, bobbing in the lake in his scuba gear after surfacing from a dive Friday in the gray-green waters.

Jones, a large lake specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, and coworkers dived this month in Mille Lacs to document the growth of the invasive mussels, first found in the 200-square-mile lake in 2005.

What they found stunned them.
–The Star Tribune

DNR tracks 24 ‘sentinel lakes’
After hauling in a rakeful of aquatic plants, Sean Sisler ticked off their names faster than many people can list their relatives.

Eurasian watermilfoil. Canadian waterweed. Coontail. Duckweed.

All were on the double-headed rake Sisler had just tossed to the bottom of Peltier Lake, which lies just outside Centerville north of the Twin Cities, and pulled to the surface.

Sisler, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee, is part of a larger effort to gather data about plants, fish, water temperature and water quality in 24 so-called sentinel lakes in Minnesota. With that information, scientists believe they’ll be better able to track changes in lake ecology and make quicker assessments about those causes – whether from something as defined as agricultural or urban land-use changes or as complex as global climate change.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press

Two charged in Chicago-area tainted water
For nearly two decades, the former mayor of Crestwood, who ruled the village of 11,000 with an iron fist, hid from regulators and residents the fact that they were drinking contaminated water, federal authorities said, announcing indictments against two former water department officials.

But Chester Stranczek, whose attorney confirms he’s the “Public Official A” mentioned in the 23-count indictment, has not been charged — and likely will not ­— face criminal charges, his attorney said, because Parkinson’s disease dementia has left him unfit to stand trial.

Facing felony charges are Frank Scaccia, 59, Crestwood’s former certified water operator, and Theresa Neubauer, 53, former water department clerk and supervisor and currently Crestwood’s police chief. Both are accused of lying to environmental regulators for more than 20 years about using a tainted well to supplement the village’s drinking water supply from Lake Michigan, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced in a press release.

The village told residents and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency it was only using Lake Michigan water after 1985, when it discovered a village well had been tainted by vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. But regulators later discovered the village continued to use the well for as much as 20 percent of its water from 1985 to 2007.
–The Chicago Sun-Times

Sewage frequently taints Hudson River
Sewage routinely contaminates the Hudson River throughout the year, rendering the waterway unsuitable for swimming and other recreational activities for at least one and a half days a week, a report based on four years of water testing shows.

The comprehensive study, released by the environmental group Riverkeeper, shows that the recent sewage spill as a result of a fire at a treatment plant in Manhattan reflects a widespread and regular problem along the 155-mile river. Despite much improvement in water quality since passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the group said, 21 percent of water samples taken have unacceptable levels of bacteria because of problems like discharges from aging and failing sewage treatment plants, sewage overflows caused by rain and poorly maintained septic systems.
–The New York Times