Even in frozen February, it is easy to see why Minnesota is so proud of our 11,842 lakes (yep, that is the actual number) and our 6,564 rivers and streams. Minnesotans from all walks of life enjoy our waters in a multitude of ways, bringing us together for decades.
Unfortunately, more than 3,000 of our rivers, lakes, and wetlands are impaired. The state designates a body of water as ‘impaired’ if it fails to meet certain water quality standards, which are assigned based on the water’s intended use such as fishing or swimming. If it cannot be used for its intended purpose due to pollution, it is impaired. Fifteen percent of our waterways being impaired may not alarm everyone at first, but the number of impaired waterways grows every year.
A blanket ‘one size fits all’ state water policy does not always work, because many different factors influence each waterway. Various pollutants work their way into our waters in diverse ways, and the overall quality of water in the state does and will depend on how Minnesota and its residents address these 5 threats to our waters.
- Invasive Species: We’ve all heard about Milfoil, the Common Carp, and zebra mussels, already infesting 150 lakes. Their potential to spread combined with dozens of other invasive species should put aquatic sport-living Minnesotans on alert. Simply put, an invasive species is one that is not native to an area and creates negative effects from its presence. Find out what you can do to stop the spread of these invaders.
- Non-Point Source Pollution (NPSP): If you see smoke billowing out of a stack, then you can pinpoint that pollution source. But what happens when that particulate matter lands? It is harder to tell where it comes from. Air deposition of pollutants, such as mercury, is just one example of non-point source pollution in Minnesota. Other sources include agricultural runoff, road salt contamination, urban fertilizer pollution, storm water systems, and more. The state has created the Nonpoint Source Management Program Plan to increase what is being done about NPSP, however the problem persists. Adequately developed buffer strips and reduced use of toxic materials (such as road salt and fertilizers) can go a long way in helping our waters to improve.
- Mining: Sometimes falling under the umbrella of NPSP, mining has always been a threat to water quality in Minnesota. For over a century, mines have been built into our landscape, bringing with it a plethora of jobs and plenty of environmental problems. Current regulations and permits required of mines have been a big step forward in helping to protect Minnesota waters. However, new mining possibilities in the past decade pose new threats. This includes mining for copper and nickel in northeast Minnesota and mining for silica sand in southeastern Minnesota to be used in hydraulic fracturing (used for natural gas and oil wells). As mining increases in the state, we put water quality in jeopardy, both above and below ground.
- Development/Trash: With a growing state population, development is inevitable. Yet, it comes at a cost. From dredging and filling wetlands to mapping more people to storm water systems, we are taxing our interconnected waters and disrupting the natural flow of things (which cannot always be remedied by creating a new wetland somewhere else). In addition, there is nothing sadder than seeing a plastic bottle or a chip bag in a lake or stream. Minnesotans have a responsibility to our environment and to our fellow residents. Pollution degrades water quality, which can have far reaching effects on human health. So take a minute to walk that piece of trash to the garbage or recycling bin. You are doing yourself, and everyone else, a favor.
- Climate Change: Just the other day I heard someone say ‘I don’t think global warming is happening, I mean look at this winter!’ This misinformed outlook is sadly more common than one would hope. With scientific consensus that climate change is indeed happening, we are expected to see a 5°F temperature increase by 2050. Five degrees may seem minimal, but with well-balanced aquatic ecosystems, just a few degrees can break equilibrium and completely shift a water body. Minnesota needs to take greater steps to not only reduce our carbon footprint but to also prepare mitigation plans. With groups like the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group, we are on our way. But in order to protect our waters, residents and regulations alike need to do more.
This by no means an exhaustive list of the threats Minnesota waters face. That is why we as citizens should play our part in water quality upkeep and protection. Small actions may not seem important at the time, but in the long run we can secure Minnesota’s future through safeguarding our waterways.
The status of our waterways has not tipped to the worst. But without careful planning and maintenance, we are looking at big problems ahead. So clean your boats and stay informed. Our waters are at stake.