Early Sunday evening, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, wrote in a headnote while sharing aJune 2014 report from the MPCA, Water Quality Trends for Minnesota Rivers and Streams at Milestone Sites on his Facebook page:
Why isn't Governor Dayton and his agencies talking about this? Water quality is actually improving, as many of us know. Read out state MPCA report here.
Here's a screenshot:
One of his Facebook friends commented:
It doesn't fit their story book
While Drakowski's friend and the former state senator deliver confident answers about the Dayton administration's motives, a quick review of the MPCA's website exposes a far different answer to Drazkowski's question.
Truth is, the agency is "talking about" the report. It's Drazkowski who's presented it out of context, as an orphaned document collecting cyberdust somewhere on the MPCA's website.
Time to wash away this silly talking point.
How's the Water?
The report is part of the agency's How's the water? The health of water resources in Minnesota online primer about water. The section starts with this note:
Minnesota’s water has come a long way from the days when raw sewage flowed untreated into rivers as a matter of course. However, there is still a lot of work to be done if we are going to restore the impaired lakes, rivers, and streams in the state. Land use is a major factor in our current water quality problems — agricultural drainage, urban and rural runoff, and erosion caused by removing vegetation from shorelines. It's not just the regulated facilities like wastewater treatment plants that need to do more, it's all of us — the citizens.
Click on the section Rivers and Streams (after all, the report Draz is presenting is called Water Quality Trends for Minnesota Rivers and Streams at Milestone Sites. Once on the page about Rivers and Streams, one finds several choices, but only one is the Bottom line What is the health of our rivers and streams?:
In general, Minnesota streams in the northeast part of the state are in better condition than elsewhere. Stream conditions — including the condition of fish and other organisms, and levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants — worsen as you move west and south in the state. The changes correspond to the type and intensity of land use in each ecoregion, due to the differences in soils, climate, and other factors.
- Good progress has been made — mostly through improved wastewater treatment by cities and businesses — in reducing the levels of several pollutants in Minnesota waterways, including phosphorus, ammonia, and bacteria.
- The amount of organic matter — primarily sediment and algae — in the water has been reduced overall, which helps keep oxygen in the water at healthy levels.
- Nitrogen is the key, high-volume pollutant in state rivers and streams and has been increasing over time. Chloride concentrations are also rising.
Current regulations and voluntary best management practices will not be sufficient to maintain healthy rivers and streams and shield impaired ones from additional pollution. Even if all existing laws were followed to the letter, waterways would still be subject to unacceptable levels of nutrients and other contaminants. Targeted action will be required to cut off unregulated sources of pollution.
Those who have read Water Quality Trends for Minnesota Rivers and Streams at Milestone Sites may recognize that summary, since it echoes this text in the report Drazkowski is touting:
Long-term trend analysis of seven different water pollutants measured at 80 locations across Minnesota for more than 30 years shows consistent reductions in five pollutants, but consistent increases in two pollutants. Concentrations of total suspended solids, phosphorus, ammonia, biochemical oxygen demand, and bacteria have significantly decreased, but nitrate and chloride concentrations have risen, according to data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) “Milestone” monitoring network. Recent, shorter-term trends are consistent with this pattern, but are less pronounced. Pollutant concentrations show distinct regional differences, with a general pattern across the state of lower levels in the northeast to higher levels in the southwest.
These trends reflect both the successes of cleaning up municipal and industrial pollutant discharges during this period, and the continuing challenge of controlling the more diffuse “nonpoint” polluted runoff sources and the impacts of increased water volumes from artificial drainage practices.
The report itself is linked on the bottom of this page, under the section title: Dive deeper: a more in-depth look at our rivers and streams. The agency is sharing this report. Indeed, it's used as the foundational document for "the bottom line on rivers and streams."
Moreover, the Environmental Quality Board's Beyond the Status Quo: 2015 EQB Water Policy Report focused one section on approaches to reducing chloride, one of the two pollutants that the 2014 report found to be increasing. At the Governor's Water Summit, much of the discussion about rural water quality centered around nitrates/nitrogen pollution in groundwater, as well as rivers and streams.
But there's more. The report notes that its data set ends at 2010, since a new framework for measuring water quality has been adopted following the approval by Minnesota voters of more tax dollars dedicated to water quality (among other things):
The Minnesota Milestone sites are a collection of 80 monitoring locations at rivers and streams across the state with good, long-term water quality data. The period of record is generally more than 30 years, through 2010, with monitoring at some sites going back to the 1950s.While the Milestone sites are not necessarily representative of Minnesota’s rivers and streams as a whole, they do provide a valuable and wide-spread historical record for many of the state’s waters.
Monitoring was done by MPCA staff for a standard set of key pollutants on a regular basis, usually monthly for 9 to 10 months of the year. Generally, sites were sampled each year through the mid-1990s, at which time the sampling frequency was reduced to two out of every five years on a rotating basis. In some cases and when appropriate for this report, data from the Milestone sites has been supplemented with data collected at the sites through other monitoring efforts. All water quality data is stored in the Environmental Quality Information System (EQuIS).
In 2010 the Minnesota Milestone program was superseded by the Minnesota Watershed Pollutant Load Monitoring Network, which will be used to evaluate water quality trends in the future. This new network has more than twice as many monitoring sites, much more frequent monitoring, and includes streamflow to document not only the concentration of pollutants, but also pollutant loads, flow weighted mean pollutant concentrations, and watershed pollutant yields.
The webpage about the Minnesota Watershed Pollutant Load Monitoring Network notes that work on the watershed monitoring approach began during the second Pawlenty administration:
Establishment of basin and major watershed monitoring sites within the network began in 2007 following the passage of Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Act with subsequent funding from the Clean Water Fund of the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Establishment of subwatershed monitoring sites began in 2011 with all sites scheduled to be operational by 2015.
That framework leads us to another report, issued in April 2015, using a this new approach and data sets: Swimmable, fishable, fixable? What we’ve learned so far about Minnesota waters.
The Watershed Approach
The first report, Swimmable, fishable, fixable? What we’ve learned so far about Minnesota waters, provoked quite a stir, though the general description of the state's waters being of higher quality in the northeast while declining in quality as one moves toward the southwest holds.
Moreover, the watershed approach led to the addition of data from lakes, while the earlier report only gathered information from "80 monitoring locations at rivers and streams across the state with good, long-term water quality data," the new report included water quality data from lakes. The "swimmable" part of the report summary notes:
How are our watersheds? Water quality is a reflection of what happens on the surrounding land. So far, MPCA's monitoring and assessment work highlights the following themes:
- In watersheds dominated by agricultural and urban land, half or fewer of the lakes fully support the standard for swimming because of phosphorus. Excess phosphorus is the main driver of harmful algae in lakes.
- Watersheds that are heavily farmed tend to have high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended solids in their waters. These pollutants hurt aquatic life and recreational opportunities.
- Bacteria levels in streams are also a problem. Watersheds where fewer than half the streams fully support swimming because of bacteria levels are generally in areas with a higher density of people and livestock – the developed and agricultural portions of the state.
- More lakes fully support the swimming standard in the more forested and wetland-rich areas of north-central and northern Minnesota. The same goes for streams in areas with lower populations and little animal agriculture.
- The general pattern is that water quality is exceptionally good in the northeast part of the state and declines moving toward the southwest
It's worth remembering that report Draz imagines isn't part of the Governor and agencies' discussion (in reality, it is) noted that measured phosphorus levels dropped in the rivers and streams measured at the Minnesota Milestone sites because of stricter discharge standards for "point" pollution at wastewater facilities. Additionally, legislation Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, introduced and passed in 2005, banned the use fertilizers containing phosphorus for lawns by Minnesota homeowners excerpt under certain circumstances.
Remember, the earlier Minnesota Milestone sites monitoring also found nitrate pollution to be rising--and this comes from "non-point" sources like agricultural uses.
The broader framework allowed by the new system--brought about by a statewide popular--didn't result in a contradiction of the earlier data examined in the earlier report. Instead, the reports are complementary. Perhaps that's why Dayton's administration uses both of them at the MPCA. Draz and Al must have thought they had one heckova talking point there. Nope.
Here's the 2014 report:
And the 2015 report:
Photo: Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
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