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From entryway to waterway?

I learned of a farm family in west central Minnesota that spends about $70,000 each year to buy fertilizer for their farm. Corn fertilizer costs have ranged from $120-200 per acre in the last few years so I’m guessing that this family is applying the recommended amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to about 400 acres of corn. When their bags are delivered in the early spring, this mortgageable amount of fertilizer fills the entryway of their house.

I am sure that this farm family does not want to lose one granule of this huge investment. And yet, unknowingly or certainly unintentionally, that is what is happening to a lot of fertilizer that is being applied to farm fields across Minnesota. It is lost.

Fields in the Root River watershed that have been intensively monitored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) for four years  lose on average 1.4 lbs of phosphorus per acre (range of <0.1 to 8.3) each year. The phosphorus can dissolve and leave with water, primarily when the ground is frozen in March, or it can move as a particle attached to the sediment, primarily in May and June before the leafy crop canopy protects the soil. This year, look for an earlier dissolved phosphorus spike because of our warm February.

Nitrogen also moves with water — from tile to ditch to rivers, and into groundwater. Annual nitrogen loss in the monitored fields in the Root River ranges from 10 lbs to more than of 34 lbs/acre.

Who loses when fertilizer is lost? All of us: the farm family with the entryway full of fertilizer; neighbors hoping to swim or fish in local lakes that are so fertile that they grow an excess of algae and plants, smothering the aquatic life; small-town residents that have to shoulder the tax burden to build a new water treatment plant so they can drink their groundwater; and taxpayers who fund the monitoring and clean-up of the state’s increasingly polluted waters.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture wants farmers to use soil temperatures as a guide to proper fall nitrogen applications. (photo: farmindustrynews.com)

Isn’t it better and cheaper to apply less fertilizer and keep what is applied in place? Yes.

The MDA is the lead state agency for fertilizer management and it is their role to provide guidance so fertilizers do not degrade our water. They have taken initial steps of giving farmers in the most vulnerable areas the opportunity to voluntarily implement best management practices to mitigate the effects of nitrogen pollution. For example, they recommended that these farmers restrict fall and winter application of nitrogen, a time when crops are not growing and using nitrogen. Even commodity groups are stepping up and promoting efficiencies and outreach efforts to reduce nitrogen loss.

It’s a start. If farmers do not voluntarily adopt best management practices, the next steps will be to introduce regulatory action and restrictions. It is our job to make sure farmers and the MDA make adequate and timely progress in achieving their goals.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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French fries and water quality

 

My son was hungry and in a hurry.  He ordered the double cheeseburger meal with fries in the drive thru; what’s the harm?

It had been a couple decades since I swore off this kind of cheap fast food and I wanted to tell him why. The link to water quality isn’t obvious.

Central Minnesota has a lot of sandy soil that is prime for growing potatoes, especially for the french-fried kind, uniformly long to produce those ketchup conveyors that we all crave. Potatoes are also easy to harvest in sand with no mud clinging to the skins. Fungal issues common to potatoes are minimized in soil that drains quickly.

As a result, the DNR was recently swamped with applications for new irrigation wells in an area known as the Pineland Sands located in Becker, Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties. Potatoes require a lot of water, nitrogen fertilizer, and fungicide. Water is pumped from the ground and chemicals are sometimes added immediately.

Let’s focus for now on nitrogen. It helps crops grow but is a notoriously “leaky” fertilizer. A large portion of what is applied gets away from the crop and leaks into the surface and groundwater, especially in sandy soil.

The DNR was planning to conduct an environmental assessment to evaluate the effects of groundwater appropriation projects proposed by R.D. Offutt Co. (RDO), a North Dakota-based agriculture company. The regulators were concerned with potential impacts of converting land from commercial timber production to irrigated cropland. Increased groundwater contamination by nitrogen fertilizer, and increased stress on trout and other aquatic life by diverting the flow of cold groundwater into streams, were of concern.

RDO has voluntarily reduced the number of new water appropriation permit applications from 54 to five. Given this reprieve, the DNR is designing a study focused on several key areas to determine the effects of increased irrigated crop production and land conversion in this area. The Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture is also working with RDO and has designed its own study of those effects. Finding a way to have both agriculture and clean water is the goal.

In the meantime, I’m reducing the demand for long skinny fries. Freshwater Society will continue to pay attention to the DNR study design and execution.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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The art and science of snirt

You may have seen the photo exhibit by a friend of mine, John White. It was touring the region during the last year (and prints are available for sale here). His alluring and seemingly abstract black and white swirls are actually color photos of wind-eroded topsoil and snow. Snirt — your new word for the day — that is what locals call dirty snow that is commonly seen this time of year in the farming areas of the state.

Soil is slow in forming — and by slow I am talking on the order of thousands of years. So although it makes a pretty picture, it is more than just a shame when it blows away from an area where somebody had hoped to make a living off of it.

Eventually that snow melts and the dirt is carried through ditches to cloud and clog local waterways.  Even more damage is done by the stuff that is attached to the soil — the fertilizers we have applied — in particular, phosphorus.  It tends to hold on tightly to the soil which means that when the soil is transported to the local lake or river, the phosphorus fertilizes them. When the water warms up, you get the familiar green scum that makes most lakes in Minnesota’s corn and soybean belt unappealing and sometimes even deadly.  When the scum dies and settles to the bottom of the lake and decomposes, it uses up the oxygen in the lake. A recipe for a mini dead zone and fish kill.

An ongoing study being conducted in the Root River by Minnesota Department of Agriculture staff and led by Kevin Koehner shows that 48% of the dissolved phosphorus came off the fields in March when the ground was frozen. That would be your snirt and really, any other soil that is not held in place by plants that can easily move when water flows across frozen fields.

Simplest solution to keeping soil in place over the winter? Cover crops. That is something you plant after harvest and plow under in the spring when you plant like winter wheat. Even better is perennial cover like alfalfa that rarely exposes the soil. Farmers may need incentives to incorporate practices that don’t help their bottom line. That is where state and federal policy come in. We will be encouraging the adoption of state policies that help improve water quality during this time of year while the legislature is in session and snirt is in the wind.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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These are a few of my favorite things

Blueberry, Wild Rice, Hockey, Agate, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady’s Slipper, Morel, Norway Pine, Walleye, Milk, Loon, Lester. Is this some kind of a weird shopping list for a camping trip? If you’ve been a Minnesotan for a while you will recognize this as a partial list of our state symbols. They respectively are our state muffin, grain, sport, gemstone, fruit, flower, mushroom, tree, fish, drink, bird, and soil.

What, you missed the 2012 announcement of the state soil series – the Lester (and that soils have names)? Full name: Lester Loam.

Most people only use “loam” to describe a good soil for growing things. In fact, loam is good for growing things but also precisely describes the ratio of sand, clay, and silt in a soil. Too much of any one makes a soil less than optimal; loams have a nice balance. The loamy soils in the southern part of Minnesota are the envy of many around the world. The Lester is the best of the best. It covers 6,000 acres in the eastern part of MLRA 103 (Major Land Resource Area).

This is the area that, in the 10,000 years since the Des Moines lobe deposited its gray till – a shifting mixture of prairie, wet prairies and forests along with the burrowing and microscopic organisms that lived there – created the perfect combination of texture, structure, organic content, and available nutrients in a sweet soil for farming (sweet meaning calcareous or non-acidic, not sah-weet!).

This is a fortuitous chain of events for those that immigrated to this region, cleared and drained the land, and started harvesting the fruits of the soil. But if soil is an evolving, living thing that took 10,000 years to develop to this point, and also relies on living things to sustain it, how long will the Lester remain one of the best agricultural soils in the world?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service and farmers who rely on their services are focusing more on what makes and keeps a soil healthy and functioning. A large portion of a soil’s health report has to do with its capacity to infiltrate and store water. This is a function of its texture, structure, and organic content.

That is where Freshwater Society comes into the picture. We care about soil health because it impacts how water enters the ground. Soil on the move becomes water pollution because of its effects on water clarity and also because of the problematic chemicals like phosphorus that sorb to it. Keeping soil in place and in a healthy state is everyone’s goal.

 

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

Source: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/archive.html?keyword=lester (May-June 2013)

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The Norwegian and the puddle

norwegianI have gone on my share of geology field trips with visiting geologists from around the world. We typically visit exposures of glacial sediment, commonly found in gravel pits, and discuss what we see. When a colleague of mine from the Norwegian Geological Survey stooped to drink from a puddle in a gravel pit in Minnesota, I was horrified. I think I may have smacked the water out of his hands. He stayed thirsty and confused about why I was convinced that our water was not safe to drink.

Why did I assume that puddle water was undrinkable? Dangerous, even?

This was an “exposure” of the water table aquifer, a place where digging for sand and gravel had exposed the groundwater. We were in a rural setting in dairy country and my presumption was that, compared to our deeper groundwater, this was not as safe (but probably better than drinking from a nearby stream).

What are your expectations? Should we expect deep groundwater to be drinkable without treatment? How about shallow groundwater that is replenished by rain but potentially carries with it anything on the surface? Do you think about it at all?

One of our biggest challenges is to get people to think about where their water comes from (and the answer isn’t “the tap”) and how groundwater is connected to surface water. Then we can start tackle the bigger issues of how clean we’d like it to be and how to improve groundwater quality.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

https://artmap.com/evakotatkova/chapter/images#_n4l2c

https://artmap.com/evakotatkova/chapter/images#_n4l2

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No more green for Madison

Most of us who spend time on lakes know they can “green up” as they warm up. Excess phosphorus generates that not-so-healthy green bloom.

yaharariverwatershedThe Yahara watershed is trying something novel. The watershed surrounds Madison, Wisconsin and has at its center the iconic lakes Mendota and Monona. Even with a state capitol and population of 370,000, it’s primarily agricultural.

The new approach — led by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, in partnership with Dane County, Wisconsin DNR, and local governments — works this way: Rather than build three new wastewater treatment plants at a cost of $270 million, why not spend less than half that to tackle the problem where it starts?

The coalition pooled $2 million to pay for approved, phosphorus-reducing measures. A pilot project that began in 2014 targeted the biggest loaders.  Full-scale implementation of the 20-year pact began this year. Results will be demonstrated though ongoing monitoring, and lakes that aren’t green anymore.

Read more.

By Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

 

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What’s up with the Minnesota River?

…besides the water level that is. 

usgschartIf you’ve been paying attention to the big brown river, or just the weather across the southern part of the state this summer, you know it has been a big-water year. The river finally reached flood stage in late September but it was a yo-yo summer with three high flow periods prior to the flooding. Almost all regions of the state have above average flow for this time of year thanks to the increase in large rain events that seem to be the new normal for Minnesota.

mapAll this rain increasingly heads straight to our rivers since we are a society that doesn’t like puddles or soggy fields. We use storm drains in cities and ditches and tile in almost every field in the Minnesota watershed to hurry water on its way. So even without an increase in precipitation, the effect of efficient drainage on rivers is shows up as the yo-yo pattern in the Minnesota River hydrograph.

To top it off, we have altered an often overlooked part of the hydrologic cycle—evaporation and transpiration by plants. Switching from perennial plant cover to annual crops has affected how much water gets evaporated and when. Soybeans have small leaf area and corn, very large, at least for some of the year. The bigger the leaf, the more potential to transpire water. Corn sweat is what I heard it called recently and yes, maybe that is a more catchy way to describe it than evapotranspiration. Read more.

The overall effect is to have reduced levels of water returning to the atmosphere during the bare-field and small-leaf season—so more water to the streams; and a lot more water returning to the atmosphere in August, leading to summer humidity and a new, second peak in convective storms in Minnesota.

So the conclusions in a recent report funded by the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources should not be surprising for us—the rivers are responding to all these changes to the hydrologic cycle.  The increase in precipitation, the more efficient delivery of water and reduced evapotranspiration are making  the rivers bigger and the Minnesota River is doing this the most.

“Of the five river basins analyzed, the Minnesota River Basin has experienced the largest stream flow changes compared to the other four basins…on average, magnitudes of the 1-, 2-, 5-, 10- and 25-yr floods increased by about 20 to 30%. The likely cause for these changes is not only the change in precipitation (climate) but also the change in agricultural practices.” (Source)

The bigger river flows are widening the Minnesota River and its tributaries, causing on average 6” of river bluff retreat per year when averaged over 13,000 parcels in the Minnesota River watershed. That’s 80 acres a year, lost. The sediment that is eroded clouds the water, which has consequence for aquatic life because it affects light penetration, the food chain that depends on photosynthesis, and clogs the filtering mechanism of organisms like mussels. The coarser sand grains settle out where the river slows—at about half an inch a year in the reach between Chaska and the confluence with the Mississippi. This fills the channel, causes more frequent flooding, lowers the freeboard on levees around towns, and results in more frequent dredging for the navigable portion of the river.

So what’s a river to do? Turn off the water. We can’t change the weather but we don’t have to just sit by and watch all that soil (and the phosphorus that attaches itself to soil particles) flow downstream. That is money down the drain. An increase in water storage in each tributary watershed with a focus on the headwaters areas, will help dial back the flows to more manageable levels. This will save cropland along the rivers and the headaches created for the downstream neighbors on the receiving end.

Water storage can be short or long term. What is needed is to reduce the big pulse of water that hits a stream during a rain or snow-melt event by increasing perennial plant cover, restoring wetlands, undersizing culverts, and anything else that slows it down and allows more water to filter into the ground or return to the sky.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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The Flint story continues

“Six current or former state employees were charged on July 29 with misconduct and other crimes in the Flint, Mich., water crisis, bringing to nine the number of public officials facing prosecution over the lead contamination that alarmed parents across the country.”

So starts a recent article about the Michigan water debacle  in the Insurance Journal. Note the source — nearly 2.5 years after Flint switched water supplies the attention is shifting from fairly basic water chemistry to culpability. The insurance industry will be watching this closely.

— Steve Woods

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How did Minnesota melt 12,000 years ago?

The link at the bottom of this post will take you to a phenomenal article from the NY Times on researchers observing the melting of Greenland’s ice cap. You owe it to yourself to view it on a full-size monitor instead of squinting at your phone. Scrolling down and back up the article is worth ten minutes of your day.

They’ve spliced in drone video, photos, and satellite imagery in a seamless look at how a very thick chunk of ice goes away. Looking at the landscape and the micro-melt patterns made me think about how Minnesota must have looked as our glacial history was unfolding.

We don’t specialize in climate change work here at Freshwater, but we do appreciate how new perspectives help propel along innovative solutions to the problems we face. View this link and see how a number of little changes spread across a landscape can have a large cumulative effect.

New York Times Article

–   Steve Woods

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Governor’s Water Summit

Mid-January, Governor Dayton announced that his administration will host the Governor’s Water Summit in St. Paul on Saturday, Feb. 27th. Summit registration has closed, but you can still help set the agenda by taking the Governor’s Clean Water Summit Survey .

We’re interested in seeing how the governor’s team structures the day and the topics to be tackled…

– Darrell Gerber

 

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