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!