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Minnesota River headwaters deteriorated from phosphorus, bacteria

More than 80% of the watershed that makes up the headwaters of the Minnesota River fails to meet water quality standards.

Minnesota River.Yellow Medicine River.JPG
The confluence of the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota Rivers. The latest report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that a large majority of the lakes and streams in Minnesota River watershed are deteriorated from high levels of phosphorus and bacteria.
Forum News Service file photo
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MANKATO -- What flows from the headwaters of the Minnesota River starting at the South Dakota border can affect the river through New Ulm, Mankato, St. Peter and on to the Mississippi.

The latest report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that a large majority of the lakes and streams in the headwaters are deteriorated from high levels of phosphorus and bacteria.

More than 80% of the watershed that makes up the headwaters fails to meet water quality standards.

"Five lakes were assessed for nutrients and all five exceeded phosphorus standards," said Katherine Pekarek-Scott, environmental specialist at the MPCA.

Among stream segments tested, 22 of 25 are not supporting aquatic life and/or recreation.

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"We have a lot of bacteria impairment so it affects recreation and aquatic life — all the fish and bugs," she said.

Lac qui Parle Lake — the large reservoir northwest of Montevideo — does not meet standards meant to protect fish and other aquatic life.

Lac qui Parle is one of the leading goose and duck hunting refuges in the country.

Further upriver, near the South Dakota border, Big Stone Lake is faring better. Popular for walleye and northern pike fishing, the lake fully supports fish communities.

"So that's a positive," Pekarek-Scott said.

The headwaters watershed runs on both sides of the Minnesota River, upriver from the Lac qui Parle dam, located on the southeast end of the lake.

Pekarek-Scott said there are few wastewater treatment plants or other point-source contributors to pollutants in the lakes and streams, meaning most is coming from cropland, livestock, failing septic systems, stream-bank erosion and some from wildlife.

Hannah Sabroski, information specialist with the MPCA, said the latest report is part of a yearslong and ongoing effort to monitor rivers, streams and lakes across the state to see if they meet federal water quality standards.

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"This is a culmination of several years of studies done on the headwaters," Sabroski said.

She said the report on whether standards area being met also comes with a related watershed restoration and protection strategies report.

The WRAPS reports outline watershed-specific actions needed to bring lakes and rivers up to standards.

Local and state government, landowners and agricultural partners have long been working to restore water quality in the watershed, but continued efforts are needed. Proposed solutions include increasing diversity in cropping systems/tillage, better nutrient and manure management, and improved hydrology.

In a few years — by 2025 — all of Minnesota's 80 major watersheds are required to have an approved local water management plan showing how they will bring water quality up to standards.

The headwaters reports come as the MPCA and other government partners are set to host the third annual Ag-Urban Forum on Water Quality.

The event brings together municipal employees, producers, tribal leaders, commodity groups, watershed professionals, advocacy groups and others to identify ways to improve the Minnesota River Basin through partnerships and public-private investments.

The virtual event is scheduled for 9 a.m. — 12 p.m. Tuesday and is open to the public.

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Register at:

https://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/ag-and-urban-partners-unite-address-minnesotas-water-quality

(c)2022 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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