Local View: Systemic approach is needed to avoid poisoning our water
Duluth News Tribune, 1/30/2016
What should we do to keep Minnesota’s waters clean and healthy? We are not going to convert agricultural or urban regions back to prairie or forest. We cannot put the aquatic invasive species genie back in the bottle. Improving Minnesota’s waters should involve carefully chosen investments and trade-offs.
We can accept the status quo; we can fix our lakes, streams, wetlands and aquifers; or we can learn to live with degraded water. These are rational, viable options and should be part of a comprehensive solution.
Water quality in much of Minnesota is degraded and unhealthy. Fewer than half of our lakes meet state standards. Most streams have unacceptably high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediments. Wetlands and groundwater are degraded in our agricultural regions. Mercury is at unacceptable levels in 97 percent of streams and 95 percent of lakes. Lakes, streams and groundwater in the Twin Cities area are greatly affected by chlorides. Aquatic invasive species continue to spread throughout the state.
We need meaningful, systemic actions. We passed the Legacy Amendment, farmers are voluntarily improving water management, and the spread of invasives has been slowed: all good things. But we lack reality checks and positive outcomes. Laws, statutes, rules, policies and programs compel efforts, but they do not compel actual outcomes.
It is clear now that agriculture is incompatible with good water quality. De-icing salt pollutes waters, and less salt only pollutes a little more slowly. We lack effective methods to stop the spread of invasive species, and we lack effective methods to eradicate or contain aquatic invasive species. The result is tainted aquifers; polluted lakes, streams and wetlands; and diminished public health, aesthetic, recreational and wildlife values.
The Legacy Amendment, which will dedicate $2.5 billion over 25 years, is a huge effort to preserve the waters we value. But what is being accomplished? According to the latest Clean Water Fund Performance Report (2014), there are no positive trends in surface water health. Similarly, surface waters and groundwater are not improving. The report cautions that, “It may take years or decades before an environmental improvement is achieved in a degraded river, lake or groundwater.” How many years? Should we be patient or more aggressive?
Agriculture is exempt from the Clean Water Act and represents the largest categorical degrader of water quality; thus we can expect little improvement in waters in agricultural regions. Volunteer improvements, while laudable, are insufficient. The buffer legislation is only a very small step. In our current system, there is no practical way to accomplish our water-quality goals in agricultural regions.
Similarly, de-icing salt use is incompatible with good water quality. Efforts to use less are inadequate because until nonpolluting alternatives are available, any salt application will continue to poison our waters. This is irrational and unacceptable.
Despite these challenges and realities, there are remedies. In agricultural areas, engineering or chemical solutions can help some lakes, streams and wetlands. Collecting and treating runoff water at the ends of pipes (or ditches) is viable. Because of the magnitude and realities of agriculture, source controls are insufficient.
We have been playing “whack-a-mole” with remedies. If we detain runoff at the surface here, then it infiltrates to groundwater there. Polluted water has to end up somewhere.
Fertilizer applications in sandy soils pollutes aquifers. Allowing this is wrong-minded and immoral, along with municipalities seeking water in deeper aquifers or treating polluted water as a cost of doing business. Why aren’t we prohibiting land-use activities that readily poison drinking-water supplies?
Engineering and chemical approaches also can be viable for lake impairments and are much more effective than watershed management. After over four decades of watershed management, we have yet to see positive outcomes in lake quality. Eagan, Minn., has taken the lead in engineering approaches that are effective, quicker and cheaper — and safe. Other municipalities should follow that lead.
Aquatic invasive species are a scourge that will be with us for a long time. Despite increases in prevention efforts, invasives will continue to spread. We lack containment and control methods. Investment in research, spearheaded by the Aquatic Invasive Species Cooperative Research Center, should be increased and sustained. This research is necessarily slow and methodical. We will have to be patient for results. In the meantime, we need to increase our prevention efforts, emphasizing methods with demonstrable efficacy.
Finally, we can choose to live with diminished water quality in some cases. I know it seems blasphemous, but there are cases where this is a rational approach. Many communities have spent generations living with poor lake or stream water quality. Waters not critical for drinking or public health, for which remedies are prohibitively costly or impractically feasible, could get a pass.
In some ways, we already are coping fairly well with poor water quality. Fisheries consumption advisories show us we might choose to eat mercury-tainted fish within rational and realistic risk parameters. We issue swimming advisories when toxic blue-green algae or pathogens are present. And we have learned to live with milfoil, carp and other aquatic invasive species, not because we choose to, but because we have to.
But if we are serious about protecting clean water and restoring polluted water, realistic, comprehensive and systemic changes are required — along with meaningful, timely and measurable goals.
Dick Osgood of Duluth is an aquatic ecologist and certified lake manager.