"Workhorse" Minnesota River needs our help

by Peter LaFontaine

The Star Tribune recently highlighted the state's $360 million plan to turn things around for the Minnesota River and cut the river's sediment levels in half. The article, featuring a quote from FMR's Water Program Director Trevor Russell, explores the challenges facing the river, and the struggles the state is facing in its efforts to restore it.

At Bdote, or Fort Snelling, where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers join, you could be forgiven for thinking that something isn't right with your eyes. On the north side, the water of the Mississippi is dark blue. River blue. On the south flank, the Minnesota River is often a murky, jaundiced brown, like construction site puddles after a downpour. Even after the two branches merge into the same channel past Pike Island, they maintain their character for a short stretch, brown and blue in wary communion, until they give in to physics and mix together.

It's actually not far off to think of the Minnesota River as a worksite: Our state's namesake river crosses an intensively farmed region where about 80% of the land is devoted to agriculture. All of this activity delivers excess sediment (along with fertilizers, pesticides and bacteria) into the river.

The state's plan

Cleaning up the river is both necessary and costly. According to a new report from the MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), addressing sediment pollution to the river will be at least a $360 million endeavor focused on improving soil health and controlling erosion. Last week we reviewed some of the most important elements of the proposal and summarized a series of MPCA studies that detail the extent of the problem.

But improving soil health and addressing field erosion will only go so far.

Conventional farming practices that leave the ground bare much of the year (like our current corn and soybean crop systems) allow runoff to literally wash the land downstream. Extensive artificial drainage systems flush more water downstream, increasing stream flows and exacerbating ditch and stream erosion.

And our changing climate will produce ever-more-frequent heavy rainstorms, amplifying these problems in the years to come. 

A different approach

We know that we need to diversify our cropping systems to reach our water quality goals. Perennial crops like Kernza have a big role to play in a winning game plan, which is why FMR is helping to develop programs that get roots in the ground, year-round in order to reduce runoff and capture pollutants.

With hard work and the right investments, we can make the Minnesota River — and the rest of the region — run clean once more.

Read more from The Water Blog.