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It’s complicated

A friend and I took a long walk through Nerstrand Big Woods State Park on the last balmy weekend in December. The 2,884-acre forest straddles Prairie Creek, which is set deeply into farm fields in southeast Minnesota. The oasis of sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees are a happy accident, kind of like the Lost Forty of virgin pines up north. So many families owned a sliver and used it for wood-lot, picnic, or hunting grounds that land buyers passed on it for being too complicated. 

The fields that border the park drain into its steep, forested ravines. The initial land-clearing by settlers created a thick stack of black soil in the ravine bottoms; this is relocated topsoil, not doing much good where it is now.

This reminder of former farming practices is visible again because the newest export from fields to the park is water. A combination of wet years and the addition of tile drainage on fields—both conventional and organic—have increased flows into the park. Ravines have responded by lengthening, widening, and deepening. This explains why entire sections of trail have been washed away and toppled trees are common along ravines.

As we walked through the park we noticed FEMA-funded repairs stemming from a September 2016 rain event. Loads of crushed rock were dumped to fill gashes across the trails. Water was being directed by berms and new culverts were installed. It will take time for these to blend into the surroundings but a light snowfall was helping to mask them.

Retiring Park Director Elaine Feikema has witnessed a lot of change during her 12-year stint as park manager. The park has been plagued with erosion issues for at least a decade and she has commissioned more than a few scientific studies to understand all of the management challenges the park faces. “It’s complicated to make conclusions on environmental impacts over time in the Big Woods… Globally, climate change is a big factor … because these are rapid changes (relatively speaking) the landscape does not always adapt with rapid change.”

Elaine Feikema, right, retired director of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

What should natural resource managers—and the rest of us—do when faced with rapid change? Elaine says that the volume and speed of the water that moves through Prairie Creek serve as reminders that we have very little control once processes are in play. We can best minimize the impact of hydrologic change rather than amplify it. Translating this strategy to the land around the park would mean finding a way to allow farmers to still farm, while minimizing downstream damage by finding new ways to hold back water and mimic the way it used to flow.

Elaine has learned so much but knows there is still a lot to do to preserve Nerstrand Big Woods State Park for future visitors. She is looking forward to working with the incoming park manager as a volunteer after her December 15 retirement.

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Water, nature’s solvent

A Brazilian colleague of mine moved her family to my town for her sabbatical year. The big questions were predictable: where to take English classes; how to get the teenagers involved in school; how could they manage without a car; how would their insurance work in our healthcare system; and what should they wear in winter. Then, the more mundane topics: where to buy fresh bread, and what’s up with the strong chemicals in our cleaning products?

She wondered why we would use those in our bathrooms and kitchens, places where we are most exposed to inhaling, ingesting, or absorbing them. In Brazil, cleaning takes place daily with water and either a squeegee or cloth that can be washed and line-dried. Floors have central drains and windows are thrown open to freshen and dry the rooms. And the rooms are clean! I have lived there for weeks on end and never thought twice about whether the housekeeping was adequate.

We walked to my co-op and looked at natural products. She found dish soap on sale that passed scrutiny. We considered the scouring powder that was simply mineral (we are geologists!) but eventually she settled on cotton towels to wipe down her floors with water.

Our cleaning and personal care products do end up going down the drain and then into our waters. What becomes of those chemicals that we really shouldn’t be inhaling or ingesting?  They become much diluted of course, but beyond that, we only realize their impact when they emerge as a problem. Chemicals of emerging concern – CECs – that’s the label for water resource specialists.

Minnesota banned triclosan — ubiquitous in antibacterial soaps, some deodorants, and even toothpaste — in 2014. University of Minnesota studies showed that it could disrupt sex and thyroid hormones, contribute to bacterial resistance, and breakdown into harmful dioxins. Our ban took effect on January 1, 2016; the federal government followed suit this month with a total ban on triclosan and 18 other antibacterial chemicals from soaps because manufacturers hadn’t shown that they were safe or more effective than plain soap and water. However, use of some triclosan products is still allowed, such as in Colgate Total toothpaste (because it is shown to be effective at preventing gingivitis). Guess I’ll be looking for a new toothpaste.

What goes down the drain never really goes away. We will eventually drink it or its reactants.  Maybe it’s time to go back to baking soda and vinegar for the tough stuff, but mostly rely on the remarkable properties of our favorite polar molecule, water.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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Is Minnesota prepared for a Hurricane Harvey?

Rescue boats fill a flooded street as flood victims are evacuated and floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. Photo: David J. Phillip, AP

It’s been almost two weeks since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, and a week since the rains stopped. All told, more than 50 inches of rain fell in Houston over the course of the storm. 50 inches! That’s nearly double our average annual rainfall. No, we’re not expecting a hurricane any time soon — or ever — in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean there are no lessons for us.

Connections to climate change followed damage reports, as well as criticism of city officials for not being prepared, planners for not planning better, and emergency managers for not conducting an orderly and timely evacuation.

I’ve talked with lots of people about the hurricane, and at some point everyone says something like, “This is why I live in Minnesota — to not have to deal with storms like these.” Me too! I also don’t want to live where spiders are bigger than my head, alligators and snakes break into my house, or scorpions sneak into my shoes.

While we don’t have to deal with hurricanes, we do have weather-related risks that are intensified by climate change. Are Minnesotans are prepared for:

Extreme precipitation and flooding

  • In the past 45 years, Minnesota has experienced nine mega-rain events, compared to four in the 110 years between 1860 and 1970
  • The size of the average 100-year, 24-hour rain event in the metro is rising. It was 7.4 inches between 1980 and 2010, and six inches from 1940 to 1970
  • Infrastructure designed for historic normals is at risk, along with public safety and our waterways

More intense heat in summers

  • The Twin Cities region has around 12 days where temperatures exceed 90 degrees and maybe one day that tops 100. This number is projected to increase to a staggering 60-70 days over 90 degrees by 2060, with 25-30 of those days exceeding 100 degrees
  • Overnight lows and dew points are expected to warm, increasing the overall “feels like” temperature and making it harder to cool off overnight
  • Urban heat islands will be exacerbated. A study from the University of Minnesota found that the Twin Cities can be as much as nine degrees hotter than surrounding communities due to the heat absorbed and radiated back by roads, buildings, and parking lots. This harms vulnerable populations and affects the lifespan of infrastructure

Warmer winters

  • Our winters are warming at the fastest rate in the nation — 11 degrees per century since 1960 — and winter rainfall frequency has increased roughly four-fold since the 1970s
  • More freeze-thaw cycles cause more potholes and vehicle wear and tear, and encourage use of deicing chemicals to keep roads, sidewalks, and parking lots safer. This further breaks down infrastructure and pollutes surface waters

At Freshwater Society, we’ve been working with metro cities to review anticipated risks and community vulnerabilities and strengths for dealing with climate impacts. Communities are preparing, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Comprehensive plan updates provide the opportunity to build climate resilience into documents that guide development. Will we heed the warning of Hurricane Harvey and take advantage of this opportunity to plan for a different kind of future?

— Jen Kader, Program Manager


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Need to lose 10-34 lbs?

Nitrogen is a critical input for agricultural productivity and a potent pollutant in the water environment. Significant private investment is made in the former, but significant state investment is required to address the environmental degradation from excess nitrogen in drinking water.

Fields in the Root River watershed that have been intensively monitored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) for four years have been found to lose from 10 lbs. to more than of 34 lbs. of nitrogen per acre. Who loses when fertilizer is lost? All of us: the farm family; 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 drill a new well or build a new water treatment plant so they can drink their groundwater; and taxpayers who fund the monitoring and cleanup of the state’s increasingly polluted waters.

As the lead state agency for fertilizer management, the MDA must provide guidance so that fertilizers do not degrade our water. Their current draft rule is far from ideal and is only working on the edges, on small-scale changes that will not reverse the trend of increasing nitrogen contamination in groundwater.

A future BMP? Corn planted in kura, a clover-like perennial. Rosemount Research and Outreach Center, University of Minnesota, 2016

The draft rule offers farmers in the most vulnerable areas the opportunity to voluntarily implement best management practices (BMPs). However, if farmers choose not to do so, they face no real consequences.

Recommended BMPs haven’t been demonstrated to reduce groundwater pollution, but instead they benefit crops. And if a more effective practice becomes available, a farmer won’t be required to adopt it. Since farmers are already doing most of what is being proposed in this rule, overall trends in nitrogen in the groundwater won’t be reversed.

The MDA is only testing groundwater that they have judged to be at risk and water that is already contaminated. Other areas do not have a way to get tested.

What should a proactive rule intended to protect groundwater and reverse trends contain?

Ideally, a rule 28 years in the making would require increased efficiency of nitrogen use. This would save the producer and the state money while reducing loss of nitrogen to the environment.

The rule should establish measurable goals and limits for nitrogen loss, provide for ongoing testing of affected groundwater until trends reverse, and notify affected well owners who did not participate in the program.

Only after widespread excessive application is controlled should further reductions be made by targeting vulnerable areas in the way proposed in the current draft. This could include low-cost but effective solutions for producers, such as cover crops. But those efforts alone are unlikely to reverse the current trends.

The MDA is accepting comments on the Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule through Friday, August 25. Learn more here and add your voice to the process.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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Making the right connections

This week Freshwater Society convened a dozen people for a day-long meeting and field tour addressing the seemingly unlikely intersection of muddy rivers, landslide hazards, and NASA satellites.

In Minnesota, large and intense rainstorms are on the rise. Saturated ground that is hit by an intense rain event is more likely to fail. When river bluffs give way they pollute streams but also create hazards.

Freshwater Society is participating in a statewide LCCMR-funded project to inventory land vulnerable to landslides and quantify its sediment input to rivers. We are also partnering with Hennepin County Emergency Management to map their vulnerable slopes. They hope to predict slope failure and avoid hazardous consequences not only to natural resources but also to human life and infrastructure.

Drawing on the Minnesota roots of Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum of NASA Goddard Space Center, we convened a meeting of our local partners when she came home for a visit. We wanted to understand her work using the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission to predict precipitation-driven landslides worldwide.

Although Minnesota is not the most landslide-prone region Dr. Kirschbaum has seen, she attended the grade school that was impacted by the tragic Lilydale landslide and understands how important it is to Minnesotans to understand their vulnerabilities. She agrees that we are on the right track with our efforts, applauded our collaboration, and gave us valuable data leads. It is always good to have allies in high places.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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A question of epidemics

What’s the solution to the opioid epidemic? Can we really just rely on treatment for the addicted or do we have to address the over-prescription of painkillers, and target the doctors and pharmaceutical industry that supply them?

And how does this topic fit in a water quality blog?

I visited with a neighbor last weekend whose family has been farming for three generations. Keeping the fields “just so” is important to him and his 90-some-year-old mother who still resides there. A couple of his many brothers still help — out of nostalgia — but he is the main farmer on these couple hundred acres. He has restored his dad’s John Deere one-row, horse-drawn plow and has plans for this grain truck.

We serve together on a local watershed board so he knows full well how nutrient loading in surface waters renders them green, stagnant pools this time of year, and he even attended an all-day event to learn about conservation practices. He hates the look of residue on his fields in the fall but has learned to live with it since it’s recommended to reduce erosion. He has cut back, just a little, on the nitrogen he applies to the corn — about 10%, maybe 30% on the beans. He is trying to follow the 4Rs: right time, right place, right source, right amount. He was mowing his grassed waterways for hay the day I visited. Cutting back any more on chemicals, planting those new crops he’s heard of like perennial wheat, or getting assistance to put in BMPs isn’t going to happen though, because he’d rather do it by his own rules and not someone else’s. He’s got his habits.

Following recommendations set by the University of Minnesota, he is trying to be a good steward, using precision techniques. His mother has no idea that satellite guidance now keeps the rows so straight, but she approves.

And the crops look amazing! The corn stalks bulge where the ears are filling out and tasseling. The beans are picture perfect with tiny purple blossoms.

To solve the nitrate epidemic in surface and groundwater, do we continue to focus on more user education? Or is it time deal with those who over-prescribe or supply the potent chemical?

It’s a question that is particularly relevant as the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is developing a rule for nitrogen management, by mandate of the Groundwater Protection Act of 1989. Twenty-eight years later, they have released a draft rule that is open for public comment until August 25.

We think it is inadequate and so will be sending in a comment. We encourage you to form your own opinion and do the same. Nitrate levels in groundwater continue to rise, affecting more and more rural well-owners and towns. It is a societal problem that will not be solved by offering only recommendations.

This is a system problem, not a farmer problem. We need the Department of Ag to provide real solutions that revise guidelines and create measurable goals.

— Carrie Jennings, research & policy director

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This spring really sprung ahead

Phenology is the observance of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate (ice out!), plants, and animals. We include a ton of such information in each year’s Weatherguide Environment™ Calendar and Almanac by teaming up with the phenomenal Jim Gilbert.

The USA National Phenology Network compiles a lot of this information and recently put together a national picture of how advanced spring was in various parts of the country. It’s an eye opener. You see firsthand that Minnesota was over two weeks early; it’s amazing how much of the U.S. was that or more.

Freshwater Society ties into this in two ways. We just sent the 2018 Weatherguide calendar, with its extensive phenology content, to the printer this week and are already taking orders from people who pounce on their Christmas shopping early.

Secondly, we’re working with cities and watersheds to facilitate discussions about how communities will adapt to changing conditions. For example, stormwater sewers built more than a decade ago are likely undersized — city engineers are now anticipating larger and more intense storms when they design new sewers. We help communities figure out what to do and how they want to accomplish it.

— Steve Woods, executive director

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Future of Midwest Agriculture Think Tank and Scenario-Planning Workshop

I recently participated in a two-day workshop, led by future iQ and funded by the University of Minnesota, to explore a 20-year hypothetical future for agriculture. Participants from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan included nonprofit professionals, academics, farmers, and investors. The workshop was organized around the idea that a roomful of diverse, accomplished, and curious people would be collectively smart about our shared future.

We heard about the global trends and external forces influencing the future of agriculture: farm scale and mechanization; a push for local and sustainable focus; vegetarianism; and the growing need for protein in Asia, the biggest market for agricultural products.


Then, oddly, we started with a role-playing game set in the very foreign and dry region of western Australia’s wheat belt. Communities faced issues such as salt intrusion resulting from destruction of the native plant community, and dwindling populations in small towns whose identities were wrapped up in their hometown, Australian-rules football teams. A world away from agriculture in the Midwest!

While studying a map of the landscape, we were faced with a series of resource-allocation decisions. We considered the consolidation of small towns, a public angry about taxes, the need for infrastructure and water investments, and whether to cater to local or global markets. We found ourselves 20 years down the road with scenarios that ranged from “Grain and Drain” – an empty, ravaged countryside resulting  from short-sighted decisions based on political discontent and cost-cutting measures – to “Harmony with Prosperity” – wherein the environment was considered at every step and small towns flourished with products that were marketed both locally and globally.

The thing is, it wasn’t just a game. It was based on real-world conditions around Perth, Australia, where outside interests were driving the farm economy and threatening the ecosystem, causing small towns to collapse and pushing suicide rates among men to an all-time high. The geographic remove we felt from that scenario allowed us to play the game without having a personal stake in it. (We had no idea what Australian-rules football was and why it ranked so highly in their priorities.)

During the rest of the workshop we defined the key forces shaping the future of our region and how we might manage them. This included focusing on local and global markets, predicting disruptive technology, anticipating labor shortages, forecasting changes in consumer preference, and understanding climate predictions and population change. We developed plausible scenarios and examined the implications of different choices.

The future game is still taking shape and I encourage you to participate in these meaningful ways:

Take this community survey

Parallel to the Think Tank workshop, future iQ is running a community survey to bring a broader perspective into the discussion. The more survey respondents we can gather, the better the data set will be for us to explore this pertinent issue.

Access the Future of Midwest Agriculture Community Survey »

Join the conversation

Future iQ  has also created an open platform for engagement on the Future of Midwest Agriculture.

Future of Midwest Agriculture Discussion Topics »

Let your voice be heard and help shape our agricultural and environmental future.

— Carrie Jennings, research & policy director

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Soak it up, Minnesota

Roman road near Vulci; romanobritain.org/12_innovations/inv_roads.htm

I met a woman who worked on restoring rivers in the U.K. Much like our goals here, she was directed by E.U. policy to restore the condition of the stream to pre-settlement conditions. In Minnesota, that is a mere 200 years or so. In the U.K.? Pre-Roman — 100 B.C. to 450 A.D. — was what she was shooting for, a seemingly impossible task! (Well, start by taking out those pesky Roman roads).

The first task in restoring a water body is in knowing what it used to be. We are lucky in that we can extract information from original land surveyors’ reports to understand what the landscape looked like when they walked section lines. They recorded the witness trees at section corners and sketched in vegetation and shorelines. We can even learn the width of certain streams, in rods that is. Those surveyor notes have been scanned and are available online (in case you’re curious about a particular place) but prior to that were compiled in the so-called Marschner map that records pre-settlement vegetation.


From this map we can see that about a third of the Minnesota River watershed and a lot more of the Red River watershed were in wet prairie or wetland (darker yellow areas). These shallow depressional areas stored water and allowed it to soak in slowly, replenishing groundwater rather than sending it directly to the streams. Too much water in the streams causes more frequent flooding, erosion of stream banks, turbid water, permanently wider valleys, and infilled floodplain lakes.

Today the depressional storage areas or prairie potholes are almost entirely gone, as are many of the shallow lakes. Town names like Bird Island and Buffalo Lake just don’t make sense in a drained landscape. Ditching and tiling have resulted in a wholesale rearrangement of our drainage system. Most of us are unaware of these rural equivalents to our gutter and storm sewer system. We count on them in the metro; farmers count on them in their fields. But at what cost to water quality? In both places, slowing water down before it reaches the stream would be beneficial.

One of the best approaches to returning our rivers to more reasonable flows and sediment loads is to again store water on the land so streams will begin to heal themselves. This is an ongoing focus of the work of Freshwater Society. Soak it up, Minnesota. It’s good for all water in the state.

— Carrie Jennings, research & policy director

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