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Making headway*

My friend Todd, the barge pilot, says he’s been laid off for over six months. Freeze-up was late on Lake Pepin where he lives and the ice-off time was pretty normal, so why the lengthy time off?

High water.

Barges can’t make it up Lake Pepin and through the locks to ports in Shakopee in this water and the situation is far worse downstream. See for yourself; they’re all stuck south of Baton Rouge.

That means no pelletized nitrogen fertilizer is making its way up river to corn farmers in Minnesota and no stored grain is making it to market.

Many corn farmers have missed the deadline to plant this year. Some are taking advantage of “Prevent Plant” insurance to cover this loss of income and will plant cover crops to hold soil and nutrients in place for the rest of the season.

Even though this is tough news for an already feeble farm economy, it would seem like less corn and less nitrogen fertilizer coming in to the state, with more cover crops, might mean we would have less fertilizer leaching from the fields. But the opposite is being predicted.

All the rain we’ve had is flushing nutrients from the soil and down the Mississippi river. NOAA predicts that this summer’s Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be far larger than the recent average of 6,000 sq. miles (the size of Hawaii), ballooning to nearly 8,000 sq. mi. (the size of Massachusetts). The largest one, nearly 9,000 sq. mi., occurred in 2017 (the size of New Hampshire or Vermont). Dead Zones form where fertilizers, lost from farm fields, fertilize the algae in oceans instead. As the algae die off in mass quantities and decompose, they use up the oxygen in the water. These low-oxygen conditions kill marine life.

We in the upper Midwest have been singled out as major contributors to the Dead Zone in the Gulf and with the wettest decade on record and no sign of it letting up, it’s going to be even more difficult to reduce leaching of nitrogen.

The glimmer of hope is that Minnesota corn farmers may see the benefit of adding cover crops and will incorporate them in normal seasons, too. By sucking up that excess nitrogen every year, they can increase productivity and Minnesota can start to make headway.

We’re sailing upstream against a stiff current.

* This expression, first recorded in 1887, uses headway in the nautical sense of “a vessel’s forward movement.”

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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Innovation worth its salt (savings)

The Morton Salt Girl helped Mike Gresch crystalize (forgive the pun) some innovative ideas to save both money and impacts on the environment. That iconic image of her with salt pouring out onto the ground in the rain made something click in his brain: “Brine could work great for us!”

Mike manages the Steve Brown Apartments in Madison, Wisconsin and owns a few of his own rental properties. Mike has been hard at work finding ways to reduce salt for both water softening and winter sidewalk maintenance. With his ingenuity Steve Brown Apartments is saving salt, improving winter maintenance, and protecting the environment. He’s always thinking about ways to work better. His efforts earned him an Environmental Leadership Award at the 2018 Road Salt Symposium, where he also spoke on reclaiming bitter brine.

In 2015, Steve Brown Apartments sent Mike to the annual symposium in Minnesota to learn better ways to make roads and sidewalks safe, while saving money and considering effects on water resources. One idea that stuck with him was about using brine on roads and sidewalks, to more evenly and efficiently distribute salt. Mixing salt with water — the Morton Salt Girl was ahead of her time. By reclaiming brine from the water softeners at the apartments, he can use the liquid on his city sidewalks and save money in the process.

Mike had already been working on improving the water softening system at the apartments, encouraged by a grant from the Madison Metro Sewage District that funded internet-connected sensor technology to help save on salt use in water softeners. To take full advantage of this technology, Mike researched how water softeners operate and he began to develop his own ideas of how to more efficiently use and reuse salt, both in the water softeners and on his sidewalks.

For one, he invested in a hydrometer, which measures chemical concentration in water. In his research he learned that the ideal concentration of salt for treating walkways is 25-30%. By reclaiming the brine from his water softeners and testing its salt concentration he can determine whether to add more salt or condense it.

For winter maintenance, Mike saves about one ton of salt per year by using recycled bitter softener brine for winter maintenance. If he did not reclaim the spent softener brine, it would go directly down the drain and pollute the river where it is discharged.

Mike continues to innovate. He is working on a way to evaporate the softener water to concentrate the brine and to semi-automate the capture process with a motorized ball valve and a conductivity sensor. He’d love to share his technology with other businesses so they can capture and sell excess brine.

In the midst of a winter inundating us with snow and icy roads, Mike is a great example of how we can consider and creatively manage our own salt use, and advocate for change in our communities.

Read about this year’s Road Salt Symposium, which took place on February 7, and check out this year’s awardees.

— By Connie Lanphear, communications and project manager

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Can’t you hear it, too?

I’ve been thinking about ways to bridge the communication gap between science and public policy. I recently attended the Water Pavilion in San Francisco. It was an affiliate event of the Global Climate Action Summit. We weren’t where the main action was happening so missed out on the street protests and the Harrison Ford keynote (we got Edward Norton and a quiet waterfront venue in the Exploratorium). But our focus was spot on: how can you discuss climate change without addressing the impacts it is already having on water?

Two days worth of speakers shared their experiences through facilitated panel discussions and pop-up presentations. Solutions to water-supply challenges ranged from empowering locals to design solutions for their own issues to technological and engineering fixes. But a key point that came up again and again was the need to communicate science better.

One speaker said that when he first heard the word “watershed” he visualized a little building that bottled water was stored in.

Another speaker suggested that the data that we share in graphs and charts might be as unintelligible as putting on a concert by showing everyone a score and expecting them to be able to hear the symphony, or at least hum a little bit of it.

So I will continue to look for better ways to give people access to the music I hear as well as the data that I use to arrive at policy solutions for water issues.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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More on Flint… and doing one’s job

We’ve posted several articles and opinions on the long slow story that was and continues to be Flint Michigan’s infamous water failure.

Just out is an Environmental Protection Agency review by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. Here is an excellent article summarizing the findings.

Suffice it to say, the lesson I want to highlight today is not about relatively simple water chemistry or a front line water supplier’s disregard for what the data is screaming at them, but rather about the oversight role.

Our governmental systems tend to have local governments carry out most of the work. This is as it should be when it comes to providing essential services and responding to problems near their source. Above the local governments are regional and state governments. They typically have made general guidance available to local governments and, much more importantly, specific requirements linked to grant funds and permit conditions. Above them are the federal systems that offer more of the same and provide an essential backstop for when the lower levels of government can’t or won’t do their jobs.

An understandable tension arises when a higher level tries to adjust the actions of a lower level. The lower level becomes resentful and resistant. The higher level often would prefer to wear the “white hat” of helping the lower level, and the “black hat” of raising unwanted awareness of a problem or overseeing enforcement is often uncomfortable. Yet, that is how the system works best. Sure there are nuances such as making a phone call to get the real story before initiating a disciplinary action and notifying responsible officials before responding to media inquiries. But we need this oversight when the data indicates a clear problem.

In a time where the local, state, and federal levels all feel as though they have more responsibilities than people to carry them out, it falls on the managers in these agencies to take stock of what is required. If an agency asks for data, they ought to review or use the data. If the local government sent “up” all they were supposed to, it seems as though review of the data would be helpful and therefore a ”white hat” function. If the upper level doesn’t review it one could easily begin to blame the oversight agency for not doing its job.

And that seems to be part of what the Office of Inspector General is getting at.

— Steve Woods, executive director

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Drought at the doorstep

Those April blizzards are a distant memory after spring whiplashed us into full-on summer in record time. The prairie we are restoring on our farm went from winter drab to black char to lush green in less than three weeks.

Minnesotans are beginning to understand how our water future is being impacted by a weakened and highly sinuous jet stream that sets up persistent weather patterns, letting Arctic air masses slip south and park over us. Dr. Jennifer Francis, our most recent Moos lecture series speaker spoke eloquently about this at the event and in an interview with Paul Huttner on Minnesota Public Radio’s Climate Cast.

Have you ever looked west and seen the stark boundary between forest and grasslands and wondered why it was there or whether it was a permanent feature? This example of an ecotone –  a region of transition between two biological communities – is so much a part of what we expect to see as we drive the interstates (a boreal forest up north, prairie out west, and a sliver of deciduous forest separating the two) that it’s even part of our state welcome sign.

In fact, the grassland border has shifted 140 miles east in recent decades. The 100th Meridian bisecting the Dakotas is therefore no longer the easy rule of thumb for where dryness starts.

Climate change has moved the 100th meridian west climatic divide from its historical position (solid line) 140 miles eastward (dotted line) in recent decades. MODIFIED FROM SEAGER ET AL. EARTH INTERACTIONS, 2018 https://e360.yale.edu/digest/a-north-american-climate-boundary-has-shifted-140-miles-east-due-to-global-warming

This is not a surprise to those who have studied the long record of climate in Minnesota. This ecotone moved as far east as Grantsburg, Wisconsin (take the Pine City exit on I-35, and keep driving east until you hit Wisconsin) and back again in the last 10,000 years. The entire headwater region of the Mississippi, including much of northern Aitkin County, was a dune field; Lake Winnibigoshish essentially dried up. Closer to home, sand swept across the entire Anoka sandplain, from Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and Sand Dunes Forest across Carlos Avery Wildlife Management area to William O’Brien State Park, as lower water tables dried up the wetlands and lakes, allowing wind to blow the sandy soil away.

In the southwestern U.S., dry years have outnumbered wet years since 1999 and the NOAA Climate Prediction Center expects dryness to persist through the entire summer. Multi-decadal droughts are linked to sea surface temperatures known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and have some thirsty westerners eyeing the Great Lakes.

This map is derived from data collected by the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP), the first NASA satellite dedicated to measuring the water content of soils. The satellite uses a radiometer to measure soil moisture in the top 5 centimeters (2 inches) of the ground. The map shows soil moisture anomalies—how much the moisture content was above or below the norm—in the United States in mid-May 2018.

This map is based on data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It depicts areas of drought in progressive shades of orange to red and is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country. (NASA provides experimental measurements and models to this drought monitoring effort.) https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=92274&src=eoa-iotd

Here at home, multi-year or decadal droughts may necessitate holistic changes to agriculture if and when drought returns, especially for those farms in the Pineland Sands, Bonanza Valley, and Little Rock Creek areas that already rely on irrigation to support crops on their sandy, drought-prone soils and lie near this eastward-moving ecotone boundary. Only about 15% of the total number of farms in Minnesota irrigate but concentrated areas of high capacity irrigation can mean groundwater is being used faster than it is being replenished. This can jeopardize the long-term use of groundwater for not only those farms and but also the  economies of communities that share that water.

Drought-prone or sandy areas and those being converted to row crops for the first time are in need of data-supported planning efforts to ensure long-term, equitable use of the shared groundwater resource. With long-term drought at our doorstep, now is the prudent time to introduce irrigation efficiencies and conservation efforts. Look for specific recommendations in our recent report.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director


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The Arctic-Minnesota connection

Now that spring has finally arrived (knock on wood), is it safe to talk about what just happened and what it means for our water future in the upper Midwest?

You’ve all probably noticed we have been getting stuck in persistent weather patterns. Our cities are already thinking about how that impacts them and some are redesigning their water infrastructure to handle bigger snowstorms, melt events, and rains.

Why is this happening now in a time of global temperature rise? Dr. Jennifer Francis of the Rutgers Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences has been researching connections between rapid Arctic warming and weather patterns in mid-latitudes ever since she took a sailing trip to the north and was alarmed by what she saw.

She is our next guest in the Moos Family Speaker Series and will be presenting her work on Wednesday, May 9 at the St. Paul Student Center.

NASA satellite records show Arctic Sea ice shrinking for the past 40 years.

Map on left shows average concentration of Arctic sea ice on March 17, 2018, when it reached the annual maximum. Ice cover was the second lowest maximum on record. Chart on right shows Arctic sea ice extent in every March since 1979.

The number of ships crossing the Arctic between 2009 and 2016.


The impacts are not limited to polar bears, plankton, and far-away people. And we can’t just put a positive spin on it and say that the disappearing ice is making it possible for ships to take a short cut across the pole.

Come and hear Dr. Francis explain the connections that link a warming Arctic to the persistent weather regimes we are experiencing in the mid-latitudes. Reception is at 5:30 p.m., lecture at 7:00 p.m. Event is free (thanks to supporters Barr Engineering, the Consulate General of Canada in Minneapolis, and the Shingle Creek and West Mississippi Watershed Management Commissions) but register to save your seat. We expect a full house! (Learn more and register.)

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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A Salted Lake: Lake Johanna

Even after the winter’s snow has melted, our lakes and streams will not forget what we have done to move about at summer speeds during the winter months. Salt we apply to our streets, parking lots, and sidewalks is a pollutant that permanently stays in lakes, streams, and groundwater.

Remember your first taste of ocean water? In urbanized areas the first flush of meltwater in early March is two-to-three times as salty as ocean water. It’s easy to float in the ocean because salty water is more dense than fresh and sinks to the bottom. In freshwater lakes it does the same thing, where it wipes out the creatures that live near the bottom.

This is not a case of fish going belly up immediately. The sensitive species in our lakes are the invertebrates and insect larva that live near the bottom. They form the base of the food chain and when they die off, the creatures higher up on the food chain, including fish, can’t find food.

Right now, the lakes most polluted with salt are confined to the metro but as development reaches farther out, more lakes will be threatened. This isn’t a hypothetical argument — some metro lakes already do not meet the standard to be considered “freshwater”, such as Silver Lake in New Brighton. Others, such as Lake Johanna in Arden Hills and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis will follow soon. Many more are safe for now — Harriet in Minneapolis and Owasso, Snail, and Turtle in Shoreview — but without changes to our salt diet, these lakes will suffer the same fate.

Salt is toxic, but useful in small amounts for public safety. We are all part of the problem with over applying it, and all part of the solution, too. The top five things you can do now:

  • In winter, drive for the season. Our collective demand for perfectly-cleared roads is a major barrier to protecting our lakes.
  • Ask your city council what they are doing to minimize salt usage on public roads.
  • Tell your legislators you support bills that incentivize maintenance firms to apply less salt on private properties (like HF 3577 and SF 3199).
  • Hire maintenance firms that have taken salt application training for your business or homeowner association properties.
  • Keep your personal use down by removing snow quickly and minimizing salt use to about one coffee mug for a typical driveway, only as necessary. Clean up any leftover salt, sand, and de-icer to save and reuse as needed.

— Brian Bohman, Freshwater policy intern and University of Minnesota PhD candidate 

Data on lake chloride concentration, chloride impairments, and risk chloride impairment are from MPCA. Additional high risk lakes were identified by identifying lakes where MPCA monitoring data suggests mean annual chloride concentration will exceed 230 mg Cl/L within 50 years.

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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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