by Beth Baransky, Project Coordinator, LWV Jo Daviess County remote water quality sensing project
The U.S. EPA, in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Standards and Technology, United States Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put forth a challenge to submit proposals for the deployment of low-cost (less than $15,000) continuous nutrient sensors to address an important nutrient pollution water quality problem.
The League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County in Illinois (LWV-JDC) has been actively seeking water quality data for several years in order to increase our local knowledge. The ultimate goal is to achieve science-based stewardship of the water resources in our area. The Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge fit in well with the League's efforts. We submitted a proposal for the challenge describing the installation of two sensors, one each at the top and bottom of the Lower Galena River subwatershed to gather continuous data on nitrate levels in this portion of the river. Sam Panno, Senior Geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey; Walt Kelly, Groundwater Science Section Head at the Illinois State Water Survey; and Beth Baranski, Project Coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County were the team members on the proposal.
Having been selected as one of the winners of the challenge, in part because “The technical review panel determined that your submission could help better inform decision-making for nutrient reduction in our nation’s waterways,” the League will receive $10,000 in prize money. We’ve been told we can spend the prize money on a trip to Hawaii if we want, but - as tempting as that is - we’re thinking about how best to use the funds to advance water resource management work in the area. This prize money is being awarded for Stage 1 of the challenge, and consideration is now being given to competing in Stage 2 as well, which would involve actual sensor deployment.
There are many competing interests for water; water appropriations in Minnesota are guided by statute. The highest priority is for domestic consumption, but ecosystem values are critical, too, so DNR must balance the stated water priorities with making sure that streams and other surface waters are also not depleted.
Case in point is Little Rock Creek, just north of St. Cloud in central Minnesota. This creek is a trout stream that leads to the Mississippi, and has been designated as impaired. There is extensive irrigated agriculture in the watershed, along with several small cities and considerable private well development. Animal agriculture is growing in this watershed as well. Groundwater use has lowered the water table and affected the ecology of Little Rock Creek. There’s extensive area where nitrate levels exceed the drinking water limit and nutrients are choking Little Rock Lake. DNR has worked with local interests in all sectors and has a draft plan on public notice now. LWV UMRR is working with the local League (LWV St. Cloud) to comment on the plan; a public meeting will be held on December 9.
The DNR plan is very clearly written and illustrated and so the information is very understandable. One big shortcoming, however, is the fact that this DNR plan only addresses water use, not the high and increasing nitrate levels. This is because other state agencies are involved here – the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is developing rules for nitrogen fertilizer management; the Minnesota Department of Health works with public water supplies to ensure that standards are met and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency works with county governments to regulate septic systems and livestock operations. Fixing the problems here will be a long effort taking significant resources and requiring cooperation from many diverse sectors.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection estimates that roughly one in five private wells in rural areas of Wisconsin have levels of agricultural pollution that make the water unsafe to drink. On October 31, Wisconsin bills AB 226 & SB 168 was passed by the Wisconsin Senate and sent to Governor Walker for signature. If signed, this bill will make it easier for more households to cover the costs of their contaminated wells or failing septic systems by allowing local governments to provide low cost or no-cost loans to replace these wells and systems. It also increases the maximum grant amount under the state’s Well Compensation Grant program to $12,000. The full text of this bill can be read at this link. The Wisconsin Conservation Voters have been following and supporting this bill.
This bill allows a local government to pay to remediate water contamination problems and then charge the homeowner through special assessments on property taxes.... and no cost is imposed on the party responsible for the contamination in the first place. When asked for comment, Tressie Kamp of Midwest Environmental Advocates says (in an email dated November 6) that “this bill is only a first step toward holding various levels of government accountable for unacceptable numbers of contaminated private wells throughout our state. We specifically agree that the cap on funding does not cover the comprehensive costs to homeowners, especially those who may need to replace their well more than once. We also agree that local government loans, rather than payment from a responsible party, is an incomplete solution. But allowing local governments to make loans to bridge the gap as residents navigate the DNR well compensation program may help people who have immediate costs for getting clean water.”
For more information on the contamination of Wisconsin wells, read our blog post recounting the talk by Mark Borchart, DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, US Geologic Survey at this link: In his talk, Borchart discusses groundwater contamination in Wisconsin’s agricultural areas. The Wisconsin DNR has information on manure contamination identification on their website here, and is in the process of developing rules to address agricultural contamination of wells finished in the Silurian bedrock areas of Wisconsin. There are other areas of significant contamination, such as in the Brice Prairie area near La Crosse. Given this, should be scope of DNR’s rulemaking be broader?
As part of the LWV Lake Michigan annual meeting at the State of Lake Michigan conference in Green Bay Nov 7-9, LWV UMRR board member Judy Beck (LWV Glenview, IL) toured demonstration farms in Northeastern Wisconsin’s Silver Creek watershed. These farms are employing best management practices to reduce the amount of phosphorus and sediment that is lost from their farms into Green Bay, a water body with a large ‘dead zone’. Following is the writeup from that tour, which documents very promising results from this work.
Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Imitative (GLRI), the US Geological Survey (USGS) has partners with four Fox Demo Farms to measure sediment and nutrient loss in surface and sub-surfaces runoff at edge-of-field (EOF) monitoring sites. Based on preliminary data collected by the USGS, monitoring at one farm in the project, Brickstead Dairy’s monitoring site in the Silver Creek watershed shows that there have been significant reductions in nutrient and sediment loss. Read more about the project at this link.
The site was monitored in crop years 2014, 2015 and 2016. This monitoring showed that an average of 2000 lb/acre of sediment and nearly 4 lb/acre of phosphorus were measured in surface runoff. In the fall of 2016, cover crops were planted and then in 2017 no-till farming practices were employed.
For water year 2017 to date (Oct 1, 2016 to Sept 19, 2017) sediment losses were about 1000 lb/acre. This is seen as an indication that the switch to no-till with cover crops could be reducing sediment losses. Since about 80% of the phosphorus lost from ‘typical’ soils in the area using ‘typical’ farming practices is tied in with the sediment, reducing sediment loss will also reduce the loss of phosphorus. Phosphorus is the limiting element in Green Bay – the algae that cause the dead zone need phosphorus to multiply. For a very graphic depiction of runoff, check this video.
Left, tillage radishes used as cover crop.
By planting cover crops and using no-till farming practices, producers benefit from having to spend fewer hours in the field and find cost savings due to reduced cost of farming inputs (fuel, equipment, fertilizers and pesticides). Soil health is also improved with increased water infiltration rates, less erosion and improved soil biology. By limiting sediment loss, phosphorus discharge to Green Bay is reduced and less algae growth will take place, a mutually-beneficial win-win for the environment and the farmers’ bottom line.
This two-day "Celebrate the Headwaters" event (described here) began on Sunday, October 1, with us taking the last cruise of the season with Coborn's Lake Itasca tours. We visited and talked about water issues with LWV member and the public on the cruise, then met at the Headwaters for a group photo. On Monday, we held our Board meeting in the morning and at noon were joined by speakers from the Minnesota Department of Health and the nonprofit "Toxic Taters" to talk about nitrate in drinking water. You can watch the education part of the program here. - we recorded it and live-streamed through Facebook Live.
Katie DeSchane was on hand to talk about the work that Toxic Taters is doing in the Park Rapids area. Park Rapids, MN, is the city closest to the Headwaters. Changes in land use, where former tree plantations are being cut and repurposed for irrigated potato farming, is a growing concern. Kathie's group works to raise public awareness of the issue and to help people take action to protect their water supplies. Here are some links: Minnesota Department of Health Source Water Protection; Toxic Taters, and Friends of the Mississippi Headwaters. This last group had a table at our meeting with information on their work on pipelines - read about it in this blog post on the LWV UMRR website.
In 2014, Board members of the Pine River Watershed Alliance were presented with a proposal for the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline route through their watershed. The proposed pipeline was to carry oil from the Alberta tar sands oilfields, and it was proposed to go UNDER the Pine River. What does this mean for the river, and the lakes that it flows through? In 2016, the Sandpiper pipeline was cancelled, but a new pipeline project – called Line 3 Replacement – was proposed to follow the same route. The Line 3 replacement project—from Joliette, N.D., to Superior, Wis.—stretches 364 miles in the U.S. and would involve a pipe 36 inches in diameter to be built pending regulatory approval. This 36” pipeline would cross four streams that contribute water to the Whitefish Chain of Lakes – the jewel of the Pine River Watershed.
Members of the Pine River Watershed Alliance were concerned, and eventually took a position that supported the need for energy but demanded that the environment be protected. On the PRWA’s website, in a statement dated October 2017, their chair Ron Meyer said, “Activity on Enbridge Line 3 continues. There has been a lot of local TV and radio commercials supporting the construction of Line 3. The ads are not totally accurate. The MN Department of Commerce recently issued a report that states there is much more pipeline capacity than presently needed. MN does get 100,000 barrels of gasoline from the Superior refiner and maintaining that will not be affected by Line 3. PRWA is not against pipelines but we don’t want a pipeline through our critical water sources…”
This very local controversy highlights the concerns with this project. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will be deciding whether to issue a certificate of need and a pipeline routing permit for this project; the comment period for this project is now open and evidentiary hearings will take place in November. Public hearings around the area have aroused much interest on both sides of the issue, both pro- and against- the pipeline.
The proposed route crosses the Mississippi near the Headwaters as well as many tributaries to the Upper Mississippi along the way. It will carry all grades of crude oil from Canada to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The PUC website features an interactive map showing the current Line 3 route as well as the proposed route for the upgraded pipeline. The proposed new pipeline would use the power of eminent domain to potentially transport 760,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands oil per day.
When the UMRR Board met at the Headwaters on October 2, we experienced the beauty of the area and walked across the River at its beginning. We also met folks from the Friends of the Headwaters, a local citizen's group organized to address the planned pipeline. According to their website, they are organized “for the purpose of protecting our precious resources: Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River, our clean lakes and trout streams, the aquifer for our drinking water, our forests and wildlife from the potentially devastating impacts that will occur if the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline is constructed on the currently proposed route in Hubbard, Clearwater, Cass, Aitkin and Carlton Counties.”
So, what are the facts? Is this pipeline necessary? The Minnesota Department of Commerce looked at that question, and they found that “in light of the serious risks and effects on the natural and socioeconomic environments of the existing Line 3 and the limited benefit that the existing Line 3 provides to Minnesota refineries, it is reasonable to conclude that Minnesota would be better off if Enbridge proposed to cease operations of the existing Line 3, without any new pipeline being built.” (Quote from Ron Meador/MinnPost.)
The Minnesota Environmental Partnership (an organization of which LWV MN is a member) provided an interesting analysis on their website. This factsheet, with references, provides a more in-depth look at the issue. Because the pipeline would pass through significant wild rice resources, the proposed pipeline is of great concern to Native American groups as well – Winona La Duke is a spokesperson for the group Honor the Earth which has been protesting at events around the region. To counter these efforts, Enbridge has been promoting the project through commercials on Minnesota television and their website.
This will all come to a head in April, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission decides on the certificate of need and route permit. Stand by for the rest of the story!
On September 8, LWV UMRR Vice-president Lonni McCauley attended the Cover Crop and Soil Health Learning Tour put on by the University of Minnesota in Rushmore in southwestern Minnesota. The tour included water infiltration demonstrations, hands-on activities, cover crop by herbicide demonstrations, research updates, a farmer panel, soil-root pit, and equipment demonstrations. Speakers at the session included: Shannon Osborne, USDA-ARS; Jennifer Hahn, Pheasants Forever; Brian Christianson, USDA-NRCS; John Shea, Nobles Co. SWCD; and Scotty Wells, Gregg Johnson, Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Liz Stahl, Randy Pepin, and Dan Raskin, U of MN Extension. The farmer panel was made up of Bruce Brunk, Bryan Bielger, and Mike Erbes.
Lonni learned that cover crop adoption in Minnesota is not widespread – only 2% of farm land in Minnesota is in cover crops at this time. The University researchers are promoting strip-tilling, which is a hybrid tillage technique between no-till and clear-till. It leaves a 5-inch plowed furrow next to a 7-inch wide cover crop. This technique serves to have ease of planting in the plowed strip and also the advantage of a cover crop to stop soil erosion and water/nutrient loss.
A three-farmer panel discussed their experiences and successes with cover crops. All three farmer panelists indicated they began farming with their dads. They indicated it was hard to persuade their dads to change to cover crops and less than clear-till farming. Only their increased yields on test plots convinced them. The average age of farmers in Minnesota is 57. They are reluctant to change lifelong farming habits.
The demonstration plots show that cover crops can lead to significant improvement in water retention and soil health. The host farmer said his fields now drain almost no water into the culvert in the ditch adjacent to his fields. In this picture, you see Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension, demonstrate four-foot topsoil and the health of the soil after only three years of cover crop/low till practice.
Lonni also reported that alfalfa pellets are being introduced by the U of M as fish food. They take the place of fish-based pellets which are depleting fish populations in the oceans. This will be a boon to the inland fish pond factories springing up in the country and another market for alfalfa. Alfalfa is a perennial crop that requires less inputs and retains soils and water on the farm field.
This program is supported in part from a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service and funding from MN North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. You can read more about this program here.
Thanks to Lonni for attending this session and assisting with this blog post!
The League of Women Voters Upper Mississippi River Region, in cooperation with 13 other organizations, sponsored a Community Water Conversation at Anoka Ramsey Community College on Tuesday, August 29. About 75 people attended, including members of the public, water professionals and elected officials. This meeting was part of the Governor’s series of meetings with Minnesotans on how to reduce water pollution by 25% by the year 2025.
After opening remarks by Bruce Bomier from the Environmental Resources Council, small groups were asked to identify their top priorities for water quality improvement and how those priorities could be achieved. Reducing pollution and improving storm water practices were top priorities, along with improving environmental literacy and water education. Thoughtful discussions lead to recommendations for action such as increased installation of storm water ponds and rain gardens, and development of water education curriculum for school children.
One small group suggested that Minnesota must “Set firm goals:
Another recommendation in this vein,
“Analyze where, when and who, then increase training and education for water systems and human impact. Example:
Participants also listed barriers to achieving the pollution reduction goals through the actions they had specified. One group listed barriers to taking individual actions to improve water quality:
Insufficient funding and problems with government regulation were also listed as barriers.
All group suggestions and comments were recorded and sent to the Governor’s office for inclusion in the water meetings database. Anna Henderson, Water Advisor to Governor Mark Dayton was at the meeting. According to Henderson, “Governor Dayton wants to hear from every Minnesotan on what water quality goals they want the state to focus on in their region and what they think needs to happen to achieve those goals. The Governor and key members of his Cabinet are travelling all over the state to host town halls, but not everyone can make a town hall or wants to be in such a large setting. That is why it is so important that groups like the League of Women Voters organize their own community water meetings. The room was full and the conversation was energized – it was exciting to be there and clear that people are engaged and full of great ideas. Thank you to the League of Women Voters for hosting this important conversation. It is up to all of us to work to improve Minnesota’s water quality for future generations to come.”
The League of Women Voters Upper Mississippi River Region is a non-partisan organization aimed at protecting and improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin, from the Headwaters at Lake Itasca to southern Illinois. This group is made up of 50 local member Leagues from throughout the basin, plus the state Leagues of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Other sponsoring organizations for this meeting included the Anoka Conservation District, the Anoka County Water Task Force, Anoka Ramsey Community College, Izaak Walton League Breckenridge Chapter, Blaine Natural Resources Conservation Board, Conservation Minnesota, Coon Rapids Rotary, Coon Rapids Sustainability Roundtable, Environmental Resources Council, Fridley Environmental Quality and Energy Commission, League of Women Voters ABC, Lower Rum River Water Management Organization and Rice Creek Watershed.
Guest Post by Beth Baranski, LWV Jo Daviess County Illinois
The League of Women Voters' structure and approach allow members to play an instrumental role in efforts to address complex issues. Organized at the local, state, regional, and national levels, League efforts and resources can be scaled up and down as appropriate. With a formal process for studying issues important to voters and coming to consensus before taking action, the League has become widely respected for its non-partisan, fact-based, educational approach.
In Jo Daviess County, Illinois, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV-JDC) is creating a model that showcases how "The League Way" is working with residents in this rural area on the locally controversial, nationally important, and globally critical topic of water resource management. Here are some highlights:
And the work continues...
Act Now to Protect the Clean Water Rule
With much fanfare, the Trump administration announced in July that it is proposing to rescind EPA's Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule. The infographic to the left shows what this rule was meant to do, clarifying and making consistent application of Clean Water Act protections for water. At a time when nutrient runoff and other water pollution is jeopardizing the health of our rivers, now is not the time to move backward on the Clean Water Rule.
Now is the time to tell the US EPA and Army Corps of Engineers that you OPPOSE going back on protections for wetlands and small streams under the Clean Water Act! The agencies propose to rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule and to re-codify the prior regulatory text that defined the "waters of the United States." A docket is open for public comments on the proposed rule changes.
Go to regulations.gov to submit your comments. The Docket ID No. is EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0203.
Your own words are best. We suggest covering the following points:
The docket is open until August 28, 2017, with an extension to September 27. THANK YOU for standing up for cleaner water!
LWVUS approved this request for action for LWV Lake Michigan; LWV Upper Mississippi River Region is forwarding it to our members as well.
On May 27, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jointly announced a final rule defining the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The rule revises regulations that have been in place for more than 25 years. Revisions are being made in light of 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court rulings that interpreted the regulatory scope of the CWA more narrowly than the agencies and lower courts were then doing, and created uncertainty about the appropriate scope of waters protected under the CWA.
According to the agencies, the new rule revises the existing administrative definition of “waters of the United States” consistent with the CWA, legal rulings, the agencies’ expertise and experience, and science concerning the interconnectedness of tributaries, wetlands, and other waters and effects of these connections on the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waters. Waters that are “jurisdictional” are subject to the multiple regulatory requirements of the CWA. Non-jurisdictional waters are not subject to those requirements.
The League of Women Voters worked to help pass the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 and has continued working to see it strengthened in the decades since. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 (the SWANCC and Rapanos decisions) created uncertainty about whether certain waters were covered by the CWA, thwarting regulators' ability to protect those waters. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafted a rule to better define the "Waters of the United States," that are subject to the CWA regulations. The rule provides clarity and went into effect in August, 2015.
Subsequently, several lawsuits objecting to the rule were filed by states. The Sixth Circuit Court put a stay on enforcement of the regulation while other lawsuits continue. The standards in the rule have not yet been applied.
Sources used in this article:
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