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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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Update 2017/12/19


This story is brought to you in part by Proteus Waters

By Michelle Moore

Minnesota has an 880 kilometre border with Canada including Ontario and Manitoba, and Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, to the east. The state has over 11 842 lakes and many rivers, but almost half of them are polluted. Flora and fauna that depend on clean water have been negatively affected but so have the states' drinking water and fishing and tourism industries.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found that 43% of their lakes and rivers are affected by harmful algal blooms (HABs). That means almost half of the water is unfit for fishing and swimming due to high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen which can cause algal blooms that cover the water with green slime. Levels of nitrates found in well water are also a cause for concern, with 22% of private wells tested and 5.11% of public water supply wells at levels above 3 mg/L.

According to Minnesota Environment, "over 70% of the nitrogen pollution that gets into Minnesota waterways comes from cropland, as a byproduct of fertilizer and manure from the agricultural industry." Recently, efforts to clean up the states' water and prevent future contamination by creating a 30 feet buffer zone for using fertilizers on crops near waterways led to an uproar among farmers who called it a land grab.

One of the worst cases of HABs was in Toledo, Ohio when 500 000 residents were advised not to drink the water due to the water treatment plant being unable to adequately treat the toxin-contaminated water. In Des Moines, Iowa the drinking water utility even sued the agricultural drainage districts for polluting the city's source of drinking water.

While these extreme cases occurred outside the state, the Minnesota Department of Health warned in a recent report that similar events could happen there if action is not taken. In 2015, in St.Cloud Minnesota a release of manure that contaminated a nearby river entering the Mississippi River caused the water treatment plant to close its intakes to avoid contaminating the system. It would have been far worse if the plant's operators had not been proactive.

Candi Bezte is an aquatic biologist, and manager of water projects at the Manitoba Eco-Network. She says the Red River, which forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, represents "one sixth of the flow of water going into Lake Winnipeg but is responsible for 66% of the phosphorous." She says water knows no borders, and that with fertilizer it's all about when you apply it, in Manitoba they want to work with local farmers to study the land and determine the best times to put it down to save time and money for the farmer and reduce runoff.

Bezte explained that while famers are not allowed to apply any fertilizer during the winter, they can apply it up to November 10, which still causes runoff because there isn't anything growing. She says while the legislation is an improvement, a lot of runoff from the winter period still occurs. Lake monitoring conducted by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation found that 85 to 96% of phosphorous going into the lake comes from spring melt.

When too much nutrients goes into the lake, it causes algae to grow which can lead to green slime on the surface of the water. Bezte said "what happens with lakes is the algae grows to high amounts and concentrations in the water, which is fine when they produce oxygen but then they die and eat up all the oxygen and that kills fish, mussels and plankton."

She explained there can also be a reduction in biodiversity because "you get a lot of blue green algae, which produce cyanobacteria and out competes other types of algae. Animals won't eat the blue green algae as much and they produce toxins." She added that HABs cause the water to become cloudy which means other plants aren't getting the light they need and waterbirds are missing out on the plants that would have otherwise grown.

Since overgrowth of algae can cause oxygen depletion it can lead to dead zones. The National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources has found that one of the large factors causing the 16 000 kilometre dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the levels of nitrogen in the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin. They cite agricultural fertilizer as the main cause. Recently, Environment Minnesota held an event focused on green ideas and brought attention to the fact that "the pollution that causes this dead zone starts right here in Minnesota."

When asked how HABs can affect industries like tourism, Bezte said "harmful algal blooms release toxins, including liver toxins and neurotoxins, and cause water to stink. Even Lake Winnipeg when there's a major bloom the water stinks, if you can imagine one that is completely eutrophic you can have fish kills, dead fish running up on shore, water will be slimy, it could affect property values, tourism, use of water for recreational uses."

The two industries that seem to be at war with each other, farming and tourism, are Minnesota's biggest industries. Minnesota's tourism industry is dependent on clean water; Explore Minnesota focuses heavily on activities that are water-related including fishing, boating, paddling, swimming, and observing nesting waterbirds like osprey, loons, and pelicans. Their water-based Voyageurs National Park alone brings in over $24 million a year and the Brainerd Chamber of Commerce slogan is It's gotta be the water.

People or animals that swim in or drink water contaminated with HABs may experience skin irritation, allergic responses, gastrointestinal and respiratory issues or even liver failure. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on a system to let people know when a lake is safe, but in the meantime the state of Minnesota warns When in Doubt Stay Out. The contamination is also affecting man's best-friend with 12 lakes having confirmed or suspected dog deaths in the last 13 years.

John Dickert is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. He represents 131 mayors in Canadian and American cities in the Great Lakes Region including Two Harbours and Duluth in Minnesota. He said there are many issues they are currently facing in the Great Lakes, from replacing lead-based piping to dealing with increased flooding and fighting invasive species, algal blooms, illegal dumping and pharmaceuticals in the water.

Dickert said his organization, like Bezte's in Manitoba, is working with farmers to establish best practices for applying fertilizer and manure. However, Dickert said "Canada is way ahead of policy and procedure as it is with manure and spreading, Canada has limits on when you can spread it and the U.S. doesn't. They do it year round, we really see it in the Maumee Valley, with algal blooms in Lake Erie, you can see it." He said they are trying to break the cycle that sees fertilizer running off in the rain only to have farmers apply it again and again.

In terms of how this can affect a city's economy, Dickert said "the city of Toledo anticipates that if [Lake Erie] was clean "the property value goes up 600 million dollars." He explained that currently, it discourages anyone interested in boating, swimming or even walking up and down the shoreline.

He added that hunting and fishing in the Great Lakes Region is a $15 billion industry that is at risk, relating that the fishing industry in Wisconsin has decreased from $5 billion to $880 million in the last 20 years. In Minnesota the effects on the fish are already apparent, in 2015 in Whitewater River 10 000 dead fish inexplicably washed up onshore. Additionally, a recent U.S. Geological Survey found that in Lake Pepin 73% of smallmouth bass showed signs of mutation.

He said another big issue threatening the Great Lakes is the zebra mussel. An invasive species that is quick to reproduce, Dickert said that "in essence they are eating the lake alive." They can cause clogs in water intakes and compete with other fish causing population numbers to drop. He says if the asian carp were to make it's way through it would eat everything else and "you might see a dying of the Great Lakes." He said they are currently spending half a billion dollars yearly to keep those numbers down.

Dickert said "the Great Lakes Region is the third largest economy of the world, so we see the economic value, [and the] international trade value." He added, "the population is poised to increase by 10 million by year 2050. We see a migration of people that are water users back toward the Great Lakes which makes protecting that water more imperative."

The Great Lakes also provide 40 million people with drinking water including cities like Toronto, Montreal, Sarnia, Chicago, Detroit and Toledo. Dickert said "whatever pollution that comes from Lake Superior and Lake Erie ... it goes into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence and our friends in the St. Lawrence deserve better water than what we are giving them."

Earlier this year, the Great Lakes Restoration Budget was almost cut by President Trump. His effort to slice funding from $300 million to $0 was quashed by both Democrats and Republicans in July 2017. In 2008 Minnesotans voted for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. It aims to protect drinking water, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat and to restore lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Minnesota has a multi-approach plan that includes protecting source water, making improvements to monitoring, replacing harmful water infrastructure and being more proactive in responding to spills and harmful algal blooms. In the beginning of 2017, Governor Dayton announced a 25 by 25 Water Quality Goal and kicked off a series of town halls devoted to working together to find ways to improve water quality 25% by 2025. As it stands, if no further action is taken water quality will improve only 6 to 8% by 2034.

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