Citizen’s League: More public involvement needed to solve Minnesota’s water pollution problem

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The Minnesota PCA has made valiant efforts at testing the state’s lakes and rivers for contaminants, and what they’ve found isn’t pretty. 

Only about 18 percent of Minnesota’s lakes and 14 percent of rivers have been evaluated for contamination as part of a 10-year monitoring project. Of the water bodies that have been evaluated so far, 40 percent have been found to be “impaired,” or polluted to the extent that they don’t meet state water quality standards.

As of this September, the inventory had identified 3,049 impairments of 1,205 lakes and 436 rivers statewide.

Going deeper, learning more
To the Source: Moving Minnesota’s Water Governance Upstream
Volunteer Surface Water Monitoring Guide (download from MPCA)

“There are not nearly enough organizations to monitor the health of all the waters in Minnesota. If every professional organization used its staff full time, every day, to monitor the waters, there would still not be enough to adequately do the job….As a volunteer monitor, you can contribute to the quality of waters in Minnesota by raising community awareness of water-quality issues and providing valuable data that can be used to influence decisions.” — MPCA Volunteer Surface Water Monitoring Guide

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Statewide Endocrine Disrupting Compound Monitoring Study, 2007-2008, September 2009 (download from MPCA)

Another MPCA study released this fall (Statewide Endocrine Disrupting Compound Monitoring Study, 2007-2008) found endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from pharmaceuticals, hormones, pesticides, personal care products, and compounds including Bisphenol-A, had made their way into lakes and streams in all regions of the state, even in “underdeveloped” lakes. The study found evidence of vitellogenin — or feminization — of male fish in some of the 12 lakes and four rivers and that the fish “are probably being affected by estrogenic chemicals.”

Unlike decades past when industrial discharges and wastewater treatment facilities, so-called “point sources,” were the main polluters, this time we must point fingers at ourselves.

Today the greatest threat to our water systems comes from tens of thousands of “nonpoint” source polluters. Nonpoint pollution includes runoff from farms, roads, septic systems, roofs, parking lots, fertilized lawns and numerous other every day sources. Rain and snowmelt flush the pollutants into our water bodies.

It’s time all of those who contribute to water problems come to the table to contribute solutions, according to the Citizen’s League ‘s recent report To the Source: Moving Minnesota’s Water Governance Upstream.

“We need a much more collaborative approach to dealing with the more diffuse sources of water pollution,” says Annie Levenson-Falk, a policy manager with the Citizen’s League who aided the 22-member Water Policy Study Group in developing the report and recommendations.

“The report recognizes how important water is in Minnesota, not just for its impact on the economy and tourism, but also in our identity as a state,” says Levenson-Falk. The league hopes the report will help focus attention on the serious threats facing surface and ground water and the need for a new system of water management.

“We’ve been effective in cutting pollution from major pollution sources, but we don’t have evidence that we’re doing a good job of dealing with nonpoint pollution,” says Levenson-Falk.

Addressing diffused nonpoint source pollution takes more resources than government alone can provide.

The Water Policy Study Committee offered several recommendations for engaging individual citizens, farmers, businesses, and organizations in water governance.

One is to build a collaborative model that motivates those who contribute water problems to also help come up with solutions.

Another is to experiment with existing models for citizen and government collaboration, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Wisconsin’s Buffer Initiative aimed at reducing agricultural runoff, to find out if they could be effectively adapted.

Citing lack of resources to collect data on all of Minnesota’s water resources, the MPCA has been involving citizens in water monitoring for several years. The agency publishes a Volunteer Surface Water Monitoring Guide as a resource for designing and implementing a volunteer monitoring program in communities. Its 2007 report claims 1,187 volunteer lake monitors and 493 river and stream monitors who collect data for the agency.

Another League report recommendation calls for creation of a single online water resource information hub to provide data and analysis on the status and trends of Minnesota’s waters and make it accessible and useful to the public, professionals, and water policy decision makers.

The thousands of experienced workers and thousands of volunteers already devoted to protecting our “10,000 Lakes” got a needed boost last year when Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Under the Legacy, three-eighths of one percent was added to the state sales tax. One-third of the raised tax (approximately $80 million in FY 2010 and $91 million in FY 2011) will be devoted to restoring water quality in lakes, streams and groundwater.

But that doesn’t get us off the hook.

“Hundreds of thousands of citizens must change their behaviors to avoid and correct water pollution,” according to the Citizens League report. “Tens of thousands of businesses must change their practices. Thousands of city councils, planning commissions, and staff must change how they approach land use decisions and municipal operations.”

Remember the fish.