nutrient pollution

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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Nitrates linger decades in cropland soil

A 30-year study of nitrogen fertilizer use in France suggests that nitrate from the fertilizer lingers in the soil for decades and is likely to continue both being taken up by plants and leaking into groundwater for decades to come.

The research was published Oct. 21 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read the research paper. Read a Los Angeles Times article about the study.

Nitrogen with an isotopic marker was applied from 1982 through 2012 to French farmland cropped in a rotation of sugar beets and winter wheat.

Over that time, the research found:

  •   61 percent to 65 percent of the nitrogen was taken up the crops.
  •  12 percent to 15 percent was still in the soil at the conclusion of the study.
  •   8 percent to 12 percent had leaked into groundwater.

The longevity of nitrogen fertilizer in the soil is an important issue in Minnesota as the state Pollution Control Agency attempts to reduce the flow of nitrates into rivers and streams and the state Department of Agriculture attempts to track and reduce nitrate pollution of groundwater.

An MPCA report last summer estimated that mineralization of nitrogen in the soil accounts for 1.73 billion pounds per year – 36 percent – of the nitrogen inputs to cropland in Minnesota. That was slightly less than the total nitrogen input from chemical fertilizers and manure.

The same report estimated that about 6 percent of all those nitrogen inputs to cropland end up flowing into surface waters – mostly through tile lines or the discharge of groundwater to streams – each year.

Another MPCA draft report, released Oct. 7, sets a goal of reducing the flow of  nitrogen down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico by 20 percent by 2025.

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Iowa acts on ag pollution

Iowans – some Iowans, anyway – are taking very seriously the water pollution caused by many modern farming practices.

The Iowa Board of Regents this month approved creation of an Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University that will research ways to reduce the runoff of fertilizers into rivers and streams.

Read a Radio Iowa report on plans for the center, ordered by the Iowa Legislature.  It will have initial funding of $1.5 million per year for two years. Download a briefing memo for the Board of Regents describing plans for the center.

And on Aug. 10, the Des Moines Register published a powerful editorial on agriculture and water quality. It said, in part:

“…agricultural groups convey the impression that farmers are immune to the rules that apply to everybody else. This surely does not represent the views of the typical Iowa farmers who want to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors, and who also want clean water for their families.

“These farmers are ill served by industry groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau that refuse to accept any hint of regulation of agriculture and insist they are doing everything in their power to protect the environment when the evidence points in the other direction.”

The Register editorial was re-printed in the Aug. 16 Pioneer Press.

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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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New USGS report on streams

USGS report on the health of U.S. streams.A new U.S. Geological Survey report on the water quality of rivers and streams across the country describes damage caused by reductions in flows and increased pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.

The report, based on research conducted between 1993 and 2005, examines changes in algae, macroinvertebrates and fish.

Stream health was reduced at the vast majority of streams, both in agricultural and urban areas, the research found. About 20 percent of the streams in both areas were in good shape.

Read a USGS news release about the research and link to the full report, fact sheets and a video on the work.

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EPA: Many U.S. streams badly polluted

More than half the streams and rivers in the United States are in poor condition for aquatic life, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this week.

Major findings of the a huge research and testing effort,  according to an EPA news release, include:

—  Nitrogen and phosphorus are at excessive levels. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s rivers and streams have excessive levels of nitrogen, and 40 percent have high levels of phosphorus. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water—known as nutrient pollution—causes significant increases in algae, which harms water quality, food resources and habitats, and decreases the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.

– Streams and rivers are at an increased risk due to decreased vegetation cover and increased human disturbance. These conditions can cause streams and rivers to be more vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and pollution. Vegetation along rivers and streams slows the flow of rainwater so it does not erode stream banks, removes pollutants carried by rainwater and helps maintain water temperatures that support healthy streams for aquatic life. Approximately 24 percent of the rivers and streams monitored were rated poor due to the loss of healthy vegetative cover.

– Increased bacteria levels. High bacteria levels were found in nine percent of stream and river miles making those waters potentially unsafe for swimming and other recreation.

– Increased mercury levels. More than 13,000 miles of rivers have fish with mercury levels that may be unsafe for human consumption. For most people, the health risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern, but some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system.

Read the full draft National Rivers and Streams Assessment report.

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Celebrate, take note of Clean Water Act

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.

Celebrate 40 years of — gradually — cleaner water
The federal Clean Water Act, actually a package of amendments to existing water law, was enacted 40 years ago this month. View a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency video featuring former Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar.  In late 1971 while on the staff of his Congressional predecessor, John Blatnik, Oberstar was Administrator to the House Committee on Public Works. As the lead staff representative on that committee, Oberstar played a key role in writing what is today considered landmark legislation. View video of a June  2012 Freshwater Society lecture on the Clean Water Act – past, present and future – by G. Tracy Mehan III, a former top water-quality executive in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Girl Scouts work for water on Oct. 13
On Oct. 13, thousands of Girl Scouts in 49 counties in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin will celebrate the Girl Scouts’ centennial with a service project aimed at protecting lakes and rivers.

Some 36,000 girls, assisted by 18,000 adults, will clean up leaves, grass clipping and other debris from streets and storm sewer grates in their neighborhoods.

The project – the Girl Scouts’ Centennial Day of Service – is a Community Clean-Up for Water Quality. It is sponsored by 3M and was planned and organized by the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys in partnership with the Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley.

The goal is to prevent excess algae growth in lakes and river by eliminating the phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment that result from the breakdown of organic matter and flow – untreated — through storm sewers to surface waters.

Learn more about the Girl Scouts’ Centennial Day of Service. Learn more about Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality and how you can organize one.

Spend an evening with others who care about water
Learn how you can protect the waters around you Do you care deeply about the water quality in a lake or stream near where you live? Are you wondering what you, as an individual or as a member of a lake association or community group, can do to slow or stop the advance of invasive species?

This event – the sixth annual Watershed Association Initiative – is for you.

On Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed Association will sponsor a dinner, speakers and networking opportunities for residents of the watershed district and any other people interested in protecting and restoring metropolitan lakes and streams.

The summit will be from 5 to 8:30 p.m. in Room 233 of the Eisenhower Community Center, 1001 Highway 7 in Hopkins. Alex Gehrig of the Freshwater Society is organizing the event. There is a $10 charge for admission and dinner. Learn more about the event and register to attend. View the agenda.

DNR seeks people to work on aquatic invasives
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is seeking applications from stakeholders who are interested in serving on a statewide Aquatic Invasive Species Advisory Committee.

People who are concerned about aquatic invasive species and have the ability to commit to reviewing reports, preparing comments, and participating in six to eight meetings a year are encouraged to apply. Applications are due by Oct. 19.

The DNR AIS Advisory Committee will be comprised of 15 stakeholders appointed by the commissioner. The first set of appointees will be asked to serve either two- or three-year terms in order to stagger appointments. Eventually, committee members will serve three-year terms.

The DNR commissioner determines all appointments. Appointees may request mileage reimbursement, but they are not paid a salary and are not eligible for per diem payments. They must abide by requirements pertaining to potential conflicts of interest.

Advisory committee work can be a significant time commitment. Applicants should be prepared to make a two- to three-year commitment.

Applications will be accepted online. Data provided for the oversight committee application is classified as public data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. For more information, contact Ann Pierce at 651-259-5119 or, or Jim Japs, 651-259-5656 or
–DNR News Release

Two Otto Doering talks on video
If you missed Otto Doering’s Oct. 4 Freshwater Society lecture on the environmental and human health problems caused by excess human-made nitrogen, you can still see and hear his lecture on video.

You can also view video of a primer on the U.S. Farm Bill – from the 1930s to the present – that Doering, a Purdue University agricultural economist, delivered in a seminar sponsored by the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center.

More sustainable water use in India
Read a good New York Times op-ed column by Cheryl Colopy on India’s water problems and efforts by some Indians to return to more sustainable farming practices in which monsoon rains are captured in small ponds to recharge groundwater. Colopy is the author of Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis.

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Innovative Wisconsin phosphorus rules OK’d

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.

EPA approves Wisconsin’s phosphorus rules
The Environmental Protection Agency approved a first-of-its-kind program to cut phosphorus levels in Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers and streams.

The goal is cleaner water, fewer weeds and algae blooms and better habitat for fish and other aquatic life.

The idea is to allow wastewater treatment plants and companies such as paper mills or dairies with pollution discharge permits to avoid or reduce pollution-control costs, which they would presumably pass on to customers, in favor of partnerships within watersheds aimed at stemming the flow of phosphorus.

Those partnerships could include grants for farmers to change their field and husbandry practices and help communities control runoff from streets.
–The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sediment, carp threaten Pool 2
Read two articles by St. Paul Pioneer Press on threats facing the Mississippi River’s Pool 2, the stretch of river between St.

Paul and Hastings. The first of the related reports deals with the sediment filling the pool, and the second deals with Asian carp.

Minneapolis, St. Paul water use declines
During a summer as hot as this one, it may be difficult to believe that water use in Minneapolis and St. Paul has been declining steeply and steadily over a prolonged period.

Different measures are available for the two cities, but they both show the same strong trend over the past 15 to 30 years:

• In Minneapolis, consumption dropped 17.2 percent from 1998 through 2007, a time when the population was virtually unchanged. In August 2011, a dry month, the city used 31 percent less water than it did in August 2006, a wet month. And in 2011, Minneapolis residents and businesses used 378 million fewer gallons than they did the year before.

• In St. Paul, daily average water use dropped nearly 21 percent from 1980 through 2011. Peak use during that period was in the drought year of 1988.
–The Star Tribune

Cutting water use in Nebraska
Does talking about water conservation work?

It did recently in Lincoln, Neb.

Read a Lincoln Journal Star article about daily water use dropping by 10 million gallons the day after Mayor Chris Beutler urged residents to water their lawns less.

Hearing set on Shakopee sand mining
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency invites the public to an informational meeting Aug. 2 on the draft state air emissions permit for the proposed Great Plains Sands facility near Shakopee.

The meeting will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Scott County Conference Center, 205 Fourth Ave. W., in Shakopee. The meeting will start with an open house for informal discussion, followed by a formal presentation at 7:15 p.m., with time for questions and answers.

Great Plains Sands proposes to operate a mining facility to produce hydraulic fracturing sand, commonly called “frac sand” or “silica sand,” for use in the natural gas and oil industry. The facility would be located in Louisville and Sand Creek townships, along Highway 169, in Scott County, on the south side of the Twin Cities metro area.

The company would mine about 100 acres, use an additional 28 acres for processing and railcar loading, and leave 12 acres as setbacks and buffer areas. The site is zoned for rural industrial use and previous land uses include mining, hog farming, auto salvaging, and concrete mixing.

Scott County recently approved an interim-use permit for the proposed Great Plains Sands facility. The MPCA is the government unit responsible for the air emissions permit. The draft permit will be available for review and comment on the MPCA Public Notices webpage. The public comment period will run July 27 to Aug. 27.
–MPCA News Release

Audubon challenges Florida ag rules
The Florida Audubon Society took on the state’s largest sugar producers, challenging recently issued permits that allow the pollution control practices the companies use on 234,932 acres of farmland in the Everglades.

The permits were issued after the South Florida Water Management District approved the companies’ “best management practices,” procedures growers undertake to reduce pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants that flow off from their fields.

Audubon filed a petition with the district for an administrative law judge to intervene and deny the permits. The petition will be sent to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings to determine whether to appoint a judge.
–The Palm Beach Post

Chinese protest water pollution
Angry demonstrators entered a government office in the port city of Qidong, near Shanghai, and smashed computers and destroyed furniture to protest a waste discharge plant that they said would pollute the water supply.

In reaction, the local government Web site said that plans for the discharge plant, which was to be part of a paper manufacturing plant, had been abandoned.

China’s authorities face a mounting pattern of protests against pollution, and in particular, against industrial plants that locals can single out during the planning stage or in the early days of construction.
–The New York Times

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