Water, Science and the Environment RSS feed for this section

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

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

The Great Lakes States

Regional definitions vary from source to source. This map reflects the Midwestern United States as defined by the Census Bureau. In turn, this region is sub-divided into East North Central and West North Central areas.

Does “Midwest” do it for you? I’ve always struggled with it as a good geographic descriptor. The Census Bureau didn’t even settle on its definition until 1984.

Whatever the terminology, I kind of embody it: born in Indiana, raised in Ohio, attended college in Illinois and grad school in Minnesota. I always had a Great Lake within easy reach. Maybe that is why I prefer “Great Lakes States”; I think it better defines our location, our neighbors, and the respect we have for water. Though the Great Lakes watersheds are small, they touch eight states and affect more than 30 million people in the United States and Canada.

The connection we have to water may come from our ancestors arriving by boat, fishing to put a meal on the table, vacationing by the shore, or simply being inspired by the vastness of the horizon on a Great Lake. Craig Blacklock’s 2002 project, Horizons was based on the simple rule of taking only one photo a day, from cliffs above Lake Superior. How can water and sky change so much? Some days the break between the two is stark, others so smooth it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins. I can’t imagine ever tiring of the variations.

The EPA has defined 43 areas of concern within the United States and Canada, which require special attention to return to an acceptable level of health. Three in the U.S. and four in Canada have been restored to acceptable levels through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/trump-epa-rollbacks/

While we may enjoy a serene surface on our Great Lakes, it hides a troubled deep. A recent book by Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes details the many ways we have unintentionally altered the lakes, the work that has been done to restore them, and how much is left to do. We are facing some serious challenges with proposed federal budget cuts to the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Launched in 2010, it is the latest in a series of restoration efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

Among other things, the EPA fights the spread of invasive species within the lakes. These non-native animals out-compete native species and disrupt the ecological balance of the lakes. Another major problem that falls in the jurisdiction of the EPA is phosphorous pollution and associated algae blooms, which can deplete oxygen and kill fish.

We are hosting Mr. Egan on May 24 in Duluth as part of our Moos Family Lecture Series. Come hear Dan as he expertly weaves the tales of how the lakes came to be the way they are and the path forward to preserve what we value most: clean water and healthy ecosystems.


— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

Continue Reading

The mystery of the rainbow darter

I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes when Konrad Schmidt, retired DNR Fisheries biologist, contacted me about when the last known contact took place between two fish populations — the rainbow darters in Lake Phalen and their river cousins. Genetic drift had occurred between the two disjoint populations but the question he posed to me was about how much time had elapsed. Naturally, you ask a glacial geologist this question.

Existing population distribution of rainbow darters. Note the lone dot in the Mississippi watershed away from any rivers. That is the Lake Phalen population. Photo of male darter by Konrad Schmidt.

The rainbow darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) is a bottom-dweller that prefers fast, turbulent waters found in shallow rocky riffles in clear-water streams. They are common in southeastern Minnesota streams and small rivers, like the Cannon, Zumbro, Root, and Cedar. It is very odd to find them in the shallow water of Lake Phalen in Ramsey County. There is currently not even a path for them to get from a rocky, clear-water stream to the lake.

The stream from Lake Phalen dives into storm sewers, even crossing under I-94 before spilling into the Mississippi. One might think the genetic drift that occurred between the disjoint populations was caused by the build-up of the St. Paul urban area and separation of the Rondo neighborhood. But this drift needed deep time — geologic time.

So when was the last time that the lake was connected to the Mississippi by true riverine habitat and what event could have separated them? Let’s talk about waterfalls.

When the last, vast meltwater lake drained from the retreating ice sheet around 13,400 years ago, a big river flowed through the state and a bank-to-bank waterfall formed in the vicinity of downtown St. Paul. Use the Wabasha Bridge to imagine the span of the waterfall, which was located near the St. Paul downtown airport. It retreated rapidly upstream because of turbulence at its base that undercut the rock holding up the falls.

When the waterfall retreated past the creek that entered from Lake Phalen, it created a tributary waterfall in Swede Hollow. This new waterfall on the creek is the prime suspect in separating the Mississippi River rainbow darter population from the Lake Phalen one. The darters just couldn’t navigate the falls. Mr. Schmidt published a scholarly article that concluded the disjoint distribution was consistent with late Pleistocene and recent changes in the course and characteristics of the middle and lower Mississippi River.

The stories of fish — spreading to new areas and being isolated — can tell us a lot about the history of rivers and lakes. This story turns out to have had a natural cause, but every time we dig a ditch or connect a lake or wetland, we are opening the door to movement of species, potentially altering not only the fish populations, but entire aquatic ecosystems.

If you want to hear stories of this played out on a grand scale — a Great Lakes and even global scale — come hear author and journalist Dan Egan speak about his recent book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.  We are hosting Mr. Egan on April 25 in St. Paul and May 24 in Duluth as part of our Moos Family Lecture Series.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

Continue Reading

Twenty-twenty hindsight

I inadvertently started humming a song from 1905 as I was reading Dan Egan’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. (Check out a recent interview with Dan on MPR News with Tom Weber.)

School kids in Ohio (and probably New York) were taught this song that documents the experience of delivering goods by the fastest way possible at the time—canal boat. Here’s the ear worm for you.

I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo….

There’s a Bruce Springsteen version that might have made it much cooler, but that was after my time.

The hey-day of the canal system was brief. However, in this attempt to open up the Midwest to Atlantic markets, we inadvertently impacted the Great Lakes ecosystem from the top of the food chain to the bottom in ways that are still unfolding. The lakes are forever changed.

The top predator fish in the Great Lakes—lake trout—were decimated by the invasive and spectacularly ugly sea lamprey. The cry of “lamprey” by a swimmer where I lifeguarded on Lake Erie could clear the water faster than any whistle. Kids knew that they attached to almost anything moving through the water and sucked the blood out. Worse than leeches.






Massive schools of the invasive salt-water herring called alewives had short-lived population explosions followed by wholesale die-offs. The worst die-off in Chicago in 1967 created a huge disposal problem, not to mention an awful smell. Just the memory of it made the people I worked with on the beaches of Lake Michigan anxious at certain times of year.

Even Lake Erie’s recent issue with toxic blue-green algae in Toledo’s drinking water can be traced back to the changes wrought by the opening of the Great Lakes to waters and biota from elsewhere. It’s so 1970s for Lake Erie to turn toxic and green (like the shades and the Princess Leia hair-do.)

With our modern perspective we can smugly say they should have figured out that canals were only going to be economically viable for a short time. But if we are honest, we can see how our choices for economic prosperity can blind us to unintended impacts on water resources.

What are we doing that will make people generations from now shake their heads?   What would make the list for the short-term-gains-for-long-term -havoc award? Extra points for anyone who comes up with a better name for the award.

  1. Over-salting our roadways? Salt is toxic and builds up in lakes and our drinking water. Salting the earth was done in the ancient Near East and during the Middle Ages to conquered cities to curse their re-inhabitation. Are we cursing our own rivers and lakes so that we can drive fast in winter?
  2. Crude oil leaks? A pipeline in Bemidji in 1979 that released 100,000 gallons into the ground is still being studied 40 years later. The oil and its degradants continue to move into the aquifer and vapors are emitted from the soil. It’s not going away anytime soon.
  3. Millions of tons of nitrogen fertilizer applied to agricultural fields for increased yields, some of which invariably leaches away? The result is water we can’t drink and crops we can’t sell.

Look into your crystal ball and tell me what’s on your list.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading