nitrogen pollution

Iowa city facing challenges downstream of agriculture

Iowa city facing challenges downstream of agriculture

Posted November 23, 2015
You’ve probably seen it in the news: Des Moines Water Works is suing three upstream drainage districts over costs to remove nitrates from drinking water. At the root of the lawsuit is who should be responsible for the pollution – those who have to clean it up downstream or those who can prevent it upstream.

Freshwater Society recently hosted Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, as part of the Moos Speaker Series. Lectures in St. Paul and Mankato brought record attendance and a lively discussion.

It costs more than $1 million a year for Des Moines Water Works to denitrify its water to meet federal drinking water standards. A new denitrification facility, estimated to cost between $76 million and $183 million, may be needed if nitrate trends continue to climb.

The utility is suing three Iowa drainage districts saying they need Clean Water Act permits for the nitrate they discharge into the river. If the lawsuit is successful, the outlets of the public drainage ditches will be “point sources,” and required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.

“No other business besides ag can run a pipe without regulation to a water of the state,” Stowe said.

The details of what it means for drainage districts to get discharge permits will be worked out down the road. However, they will likely parallel other permitted industries. The drainage districts will continue to operate, but they will need to monitor contaminant levels, and limit how much pollution they discharge. The implementation timeline for either can vary depending on practicality.

“We don’t want to bankrupt agriculture. We want to take the cost of taking out the nitrate off our customers and put it back on the people benefiting from it,” he said. “This not an issue that’s going to go away with volunteerism.”

Watch Mr. Stowe’s presentation online.

——- Minnesota River Weekly Update; November 17, 2015 ——

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Nutrient strategy hearings

Do you have questions you want to ask, or comments you want to make, about the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s draft strategy for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi and Red rivers?

The strategy calls for wringing a 20 percent reduction out of the more than 250 million pounds of nitrogen that Minnesota sends down the Mississippi by 2025. Much of that reduction would come by persuading farmers to follow University of Minnesota-recommended application rates when they fertilize their corn.

The 20 percent reduction in nitrogen and a similar 35 percent cut in phosphorus pollution would be down payments on a Minnesota commitment to eventually reduce the flow of both pollutants by 45 percent in order to help control the oxygen-deprived “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The strategy, announced last month, will be the subject of six public meetings around the state from Nov. 18 through Dec. 10. The meetings will be:

  • Monday, Nov. 18, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the MPCA’s St. Paul office,  520 Lafayette Rd. N.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 19, from 3 to 5 p.m., Department of Natural Resources office, New Ulm.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 26, from 3 to 5 p.m., Kandiyohi County Government Center, Willmar.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 3, from  4 to 6 p.m., St. James Hotel, Red Wing.
  • Wednesday, Dec. 4, from  3 to 5 p.m., Otter Tail County Services Building, Fergus Falls.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 10, from  11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., MPCA office, Duluth

The draft strategy is open for public review and comment through Dec. 18, on the web at:

Phosphorus and nitrogen are the primary nutrients that in excessive amounts can pollute lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater. Excess nutrients make up 18 percent of Minnesota’s water impairments, and the number is expected to grow in the coming decade.

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Nitrate in Mississippi up 55% over 30 years

Continuing research on the amount of nitrate washing down the Mississippi River south of the Minnesota border shows a very significant increase in the yearly loads of the pollutant from 1980 through 2010.

But the latest U.S. Geological Survey analysis of the three decades of water sampling results now shows a reduction in the average annual increase, compared to a similar calculation two years ago.

The analysis relies on modeling that evens out the high nitrate flows in very wet years and the much lower flows in dry years.

Clinton, Iowa, about 160 miles south of the Minnesota border, was the farthest-upstream point where water sampling for the analysis was conducted. The latest modeling estimates that the average nitrate loads at Clinton increased 55 percent – or an average of 1.8 percent per year — between 1980 and 2010.

The earlier modeling, which covered 1980 through 2008, estimated there had been a 67 percent overall increase in the nitrate load, or 2.3 percent per year.

Lori A. Sprague, one of the USGS researchers who did the modeling, said in an interview that the research did not attempt to determine the sources of the big overall nitrate increases over the 30-year period. Nor, she said, could the research provide a reason for the lower total increase calculated after flows from 2009 and 2010 were added to the earlier data.

Read the latest USGS report on nitrate loads along the full length of the Mississippi. Read the earlier USGS report. Read a 2011 Freshwater blog post about the earlier research.

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EPA gets deadline in lawsuit

A federal judge in Louisiana has given the Environmental Protection Agency six months to decide whether to set federal Clean Water Act standards for nitrogen and phosphorus in all U.S. waterways or explain why they are not needed.

The ruling came this month in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Read an Associated Press article, published in the Washington Post, about the case. In the litigation, the environmental groups seek federal regulation of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants – many of them from farm fields — that contribute to the oxygen-deprived Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Read a Star Tribune article about a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

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Nitrogen flush headed for Gulf

Last summer’s drought in the big parts of the Midwest stunted crops and left lots of nitrogen fertilizer – much of which normally would have been taken up by plants and converted to grain — in the soil of farm fields. This year’s wet spring flushed lots of that leftover nitrogen down the Mississippi River. Read an article from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette about an effort to monitor that pollution headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

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Video profiles Dave Legvold

Dave Legvold photo

Dave Legvold

Dave Legvold, a Northfield-area farmer, measures his corn crop’s success in dollars, not bushels. And that often means limiting nitrogen fertilizer use in ways that save him money while also reducing pollution in the streams and lakes downstream from his fields. View a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency video in which Legvold talks about using an Iowa State University tool to calculate optimal fertilizer application rates.

In late June, the MPCA issued a major report on nitrogen pollution of rivers and streams that said more than 70 percent of the pollution comes from farms. Check out that report and download it or a shorter executive summary, or view video of a news conference announcing the report.

Legvold, a strong supporter of conservation practices that protect water quality, is a member of an advisory committee for Minnesota FarmWise. The program, a partnership between the Freshwater Society, the National Park Service and the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, is working to encourage conservation on farms in the Rice Creek sub-watershed of the Cannon River near Northfield.

Learn more about FarmWise. Read a 2011 Freshwater newsletter article about Legvold and the program.

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Star Tribune editorializes on nitrogen pollution

The Star Tribune, in a July 12 editorial, praises what it calls a “painfully honest” appraisal by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency of our state’s nitrogen pollution problem. The report, issued in late June, documented that more than 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution of lakes and streams comes from agriculture.

The editorial calls on state and federal policy-makers to focus on the problem and find ways to encourage and reward solutions.  It quotes a Freshwater Society call for a “cultural shift in our agricultural practices, what we grow and how we are growing it.”

Read the Star Tribune  editorial. Read the MPCA report.

Read the Freshwater Society statement on the report. View video of a 2012 Freshwater lecture on nitrogen pollution of both air and water by Purdue University Professor Otto Doering. Read a q-and-a interview with Doering. Download a 141-page report to the Environmental Protection Agency by a committee that Doering led.

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Freshwater statement on MPCA nitrogen pollution report

The Freshwater Society made this statement about the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s report on nitrogen pollution of surface waters:

The MPCA report is good work. It demonstrates the magnitude of Minnesota’s nitrogen pollution problem – 306 million pounds per year flowing into our rivers and streams. That nitrogen imperils fish and other aquatic life both here and downstream, it contributes to the oxygen-depleted Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and it threatens drinking water.

And the report documents that the vast majority of that pollution, an estimated 73 percent, is produced by agriculture.

What the report does not do is provide any concrete recommendations for change. The Freshwater Society calls on Minnesota’s farmers, policy-makers and citizens to make the difficult and expensive choices necessary to significantly reduce the pollution.

This report should make it clear that we need a cultural shift in our agricultural practices; what we grow and how we are growing it.

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Water, science and the environment

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

Hypoxia Task Force looks to reduce nitrogen
The drought has temporarily done this year what several state and federal programs have tried to do in terms of reducing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the fluctuating levels of hypoxia in the Gulf will surely rise next year if rains return to the Mississippi River basin.

The federal government’s Hypoxia Task Force met to continue its quest for long-term strategies for reducing nitrate loads in the Gulf by as much as 45%.

Success would appear frustratingly slow for the state-federal task force with numerous presentations Tuesday about the need to expand and coordinate water-quality monitoring, as well as better examine the value and economics of applying different practices on the land. Still, Chairwoman Nancy Stoner, EPA’s acting administrator for water quality, stressed gains have been made for the task force, now in its 15th year.

“We’re picking up a lot of momentum but it takes awhile to make the kinds of changes we’re talking about,” Stoner said. “It will take some time to see some results but the first thing to do is to agree upon the approaches and changes to be made,” Stoner said.
–The Progressive Farmer

Don’t miss our Oct. 4 lecture on nitrogen
Register now to attend a free, public lecture in St. Paul on the serious problem of nitrogen pollution of both water and air. Read q-and-a interview, conducted by Freshwater, with the lecturer, Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering.

Asian carp and the presidential race
President Obama has promised billions more dollars in aid and has cracked the whip on the US Army Corps of Engineers to finish a study on the great Great Lakes Asian carp.

Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s rival in the election, says the administration is moving too slowly. He has suggested that “America put a man on the moon” in less time than it’s taking to protect the Great Lakes from an invasion of the big fish migrating up the Mississippi River watershed, threatening to broach Lake Michigan at Chicago.

Sure, encroaching carp aren’t in the league with jobs or foreign policy when it comes to national priorities. But the political debate over what to do about the disruptive Asian carp population also isn’t just about the ecology and hydrology of the world’s biggest freshwater system. It’s also about the 64 electoral votes locked up in four Great Lakes battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
–The Christian Science Monitor

Army Corps completes Asian carp survey
A study of 18 canals, ditches and other waterways that could link the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds found none was a likely pathway to the lakes for Asian carp, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday, Sept. 14.

The study was part of a broader search for ways to stop the movement of invasive species between the two basins. Of particular concern are bighead and silver carp — ravenous Asian fish that scientists say could out-compete native species for food.

Asian carp infested the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and are approaching a Chicago-area shipping canal through which they might be able to reach Lake Michigan. Under pressure from Congress and advocacy groups, the Army Corps promised to produce options for blocking their passage by the end of next year.
–The Associated Press

DNR restricts withdrawals from low streams
The ongoing drought is forcing the Department of Natural Resources to restrict water use around Minnesota.

More than a dozen industrial and recreational sites have been required to suspend pumping from state waterways.
Levels have sharply declined in rivers and other surface waters as the drought continues. DNR water permits allow a variety of customers to pump water, but those permits also require cutbacks if water levels get too low.

That’s happening now, and recently the DNR suspended numerous water pumping permits. Most are for golf courses or other recreational locations.

“Last week we sent out 16 letters. And there was one in Hubbard County, Blue Earth, one in Martin, several in Polk, to surface water users. And they were told then to stop pumping water as of last Thursday midnight,” said Julie Ekman, DNR water regulations unit supervisor.
–Minnesota Public Radio

Isaac fails to loosen drought’s grip
More than three quarters of the contiguous United States still faces abnormally dry conditions in spite of scattered relief from rains generated by tropical storm system Isaac. As seen on the U.S. Drought Monitor, exceptional drought — the worst category — persists in the very center of the nation from Nebraska south to Texas, east through Missouri and Arkansas to the Mississippi Valley. Much of Georgia is also in exceptional drought.

Drought is the nation’s most costly natural disaster, far exceeding earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and floods. FEMA has estimated that the annual average cost of drought in the United States ranges from $6 to $8 billion. (By comparison, the annual costs of flooding are in the $2 to $4 billion range.) Unlike flooding, drought does not come and go in a single episode. Rather, it often takes a long time for drought to begin to impact an area, and it can fester for months or even years.
–USGS News Release

Journal looks at conservation, climate change
A special research section of the September/October issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, “Conservation practices to mitigate the effects of climate change,” offers a compilation of works that cover the most current advances in the science of conservation practices that may alleviate some of the effects associated with a changing climate.

Follett et al. discuss the effects of climate change on soil carbon and nitrogen storage in the U.S. Great Plains. Chen et al. evaluate a selection of maize inbred lines for drought and heat stress tolerance under field conditions and identify several inbred lines that showed high tolerance to drought. Brown and Huggins quantify agricultural impacts on soil organic carbon sequestration for dryland cropping systems in different agroclimatic zones of the Pacific Northwest.
–SWCS Conservation NewsBriefs

DNR does follow-up searches for invasives
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources  biologists and divers searched lake bottoms immediately surrounding areas where zebra mussels were discovered last fall on boat lifts on Lake Irene in Douglas County and Rose Lake in Otter Tail County. The divers did not discover zebra mussels, but searches will continue later this fall when docks and boat lifts are pulled from the shores along these lakes.

“This is a good sign, but these are only preliminary inspections that will help us determine the overall outcome of our efforts,” said Nathan Olson, DNR invasive species specialist in Fergus Falls. “We have more field work to do this fall, sampling the waters for veligers and inspecting docks and boat lifts as folks remove them from these waters.”

Last fall, DNR biologists investigated two separate cases where localized zebra mussel populations were discovered on boat lifts. In one case, mussels were attached to rocks near the boat lift. Both boat lifts had been moved from infested waters to these lakes earlier in 2011.Due to the early detection of zebra mussels in these locations, the DNR immediately treated both areas with copper sulfate, a common chemical used to treat snails that cause swimmers itch. The treatments were conducted by a icensed aquatic pesticide contractor. The searches conducted recently were part of a follow-up plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the early detection and rapid response.
–DNR News Release

Canadian mining firm admits pollution
Canadian mining giant Teck Resources Ltd. has admitted in a U.S. court that effluent from its smelter in southeast British Columbia has polluted the Columbia River in Washington for more than a century.

Teck subsidiary Teck Metals made the admission of fact in a lawsuit brought by a group of U.S. Indian tribes over environmental damage caused by the effluent discharges dating back to 1896.

The agreement, reached on the eve of the trial initiated by the Colville Confederated Tribes, stipulates that some hazardous materials in the slag discharged from Teck’s smelter in Trail, B.C., ended up in the Upper Columbia River south of the border.
–The Canadian Press

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Nitrogen; invasive species; water infrastructure

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

Otto Doering to lecture on nitrogen pollution

Otto Doering

Save the date: Nitrogen pollution lecture set Oct. 4
Nitrogen. It makes up three-fourths of the air all around us. It cascades through our environment between land, water and the atmosphere. It is critical to agricultural production that feeds the world. And it is a byproduct of all the fossil fuels we consume.

In the United States, we put five times more nitrogen into the environment than is deposited or released naturally. That excess nitrogen causes a variety of environmental and health problems – pollution of ground and surface waters, smog, increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

On Oct. 4, 2012, the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences will present an important lecture by Purdue University professor Otto Doering on the problem of excess nitrogen. It is an issue that the National Academy of Engineering has called one of the “grand challenges” facing this country in the 21st Century.

Doering is a professor of agricultural economics and director of Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center. He led a team of scientists that last year produced a major report on the nitrogen problem for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.

The 141-page report is titled “Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences, and Management Options.”

His lecture will be titled “Excess nitrogen: A Confounding Problem for Energy Use, Food Production, the Water We Drink and the Air We Breathe.” Information on registering to attend the talk is coming soon to the Freshwater web site.

Minnesota’s penalties on invasives double
Civil fines for people violating Minnesota’s aquatic invasive species (AIS) laws doubled on July 1, when new, tougher laws took effect.

Minnesota law prohibits the possession or transport of any AIS in the state. AIS include zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and spiny waterfleas.

Last month, DNR officials announced that the AIS violation rate among Minnesota boaters and anglers is at an unacceptable rate of 20 percent.

“The larger fines should help people realize that this is a serious problem, and we need everyone to do their part to prevent the spread of AIS,” explained Maj. Phil Meier, DNR Enforcement operations manager.

For example, failure to remove a drain plug while transporting a watercraft will mean a $100 fine, instead of a $50 penalty. The fine for unlawfully possessing and transporting prohibited AIS will increase from $250 to $500.
–DNR News Release

EPA water infrastructure $$ at risk 
A House subcommittee approved a 53% cut to the federal program that makes low-cost loans to cities to build infrastructure to prevent water pollution. Next it will go to the full House for a vote.

U.S. cities lose one-fifth of their water to leaks and suffer 1.2 trillion gallons of wastewater spills each year, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

It is clear we need to repair our water systems, but the financial burden is huge: more than $600 billion by 2019, found an EPA report.

The cause of much of the wastewater spills is storm water overflows, said the Congressional Budget Office . Many cities in the Northeast and Great Lakes region collect storm water to clean it in wastewater treatment centers. Unfortunately, these systems frequently overflow, and so untreated sewage and storm water runoff are expelled into surrounding water bodies. These events happen up to 75,000 times a year, says the EPA.

Zebra mussel worries close boat ramps
Boater access to two more Minnesota lakes is being tightened in hopes of preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Seven Lakeview Township accesses on Lake Melissa and Lake Sallie south of Detroit Lakes have been closed for boat launching and removal, though they remain open for swimming and other uses.

The lakes aren’t being closed to the public, however. Each lake has one state access that isn’t affected by the closures, said Dave Knopf, township chairman.

“It will make it a lot easier monitoring people coming and going from just one access,” Knopf said. “Otherwise it would be impossible to monitor those two lakes.”
–The Star Tribune

Army Corps ordered to speed up Asian carp plan
Congress passed a measure ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up its efforts to devise a plan to keep voracious Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

The measure — tucked inside the highway spending and student loan compromise approved by both the U.S. House and Senate — gives the Corps 18 months to come up with a plan for blocking Asian carp at 18 points where they could pass into the Great Lakes. Within three months, Congress wants a progress report.

The Corps would be expected to look into means of separating the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes where feasible to stop the spread of Asian carp, especially around Chicago — where an electronic barrier has been used to keep the invasive species from reaching Lake Michigan.
–The Detroit Free Press

Supreme Court to hear beach pollution case
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Los Angeles County’s appeal of a lower court decision requiring the county to clean up polluted runoff that flows to the ocean through two urban waterways.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with environmental groups in finding the county and its flood control district responsible for tainted water released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the county in 2008 in an effort to get the agency to treat or divert the water before it reaches the beach.

Water quality experts have long identified storm runoff — the toxic soup of bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer and trash that is swept to the sea when it rains — as the leading source of water pollution at Southern California beaches and a cause of swimmer illness.
–The Los Angeles Times

MPCA seek comment on Nicollet County dairy 
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency  invites the public to comment on an Environmental Assessment Worksheet prepared for a proposed 3,000-cow dairy northwest of St. Peter in south-central Minnesota.

Comments must be in writing and accepted by 4:30 p.m. on July 25. The MPCA is the state agency responsible for regulating feedlots in Minnesota. High Island Dairy LLC, owned by Davis Family Dairies LLC, proposes to build a total confinement barn in Lake Prairie Township of Nicollet County to house 3,000 dairy cows.

The barn would be located off 348th Street in the township, about two-thirds of a mile southwest of County Road 8. The dairy would use a process called “anaerobic digestion” to break down its manure and wastewater along with wastewater and sludge from the Le Sueur Cheese Co. This process would also create methane gas to use as energy at the site.

After digestion, the manure solids would be separated from the waste stream and used as bedding for the cows. The liquid manure, along with solids not needed for bedding, would be stored in a covered earthen basin on site until it is applied as fertilizer to cropland every year after harvest.

The dairy would generate 32.85 million gallons of manure a year. The on-site basin would have 15 months of storage capacity for manure and wastewater produced at the proposed facility as well as for the waste from the cheese factory.

Copies of the High Island Dairy worksheet are available on the MPCA Environmental Assessment Worksheets and Environmental Impact Statements webpage. The proposed dairy requires a water appropriation permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as it would use 45 million gallons of water a year. It also requires a conditional use permit from Nicollet County. –MPCA News Release

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