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Minnesota’s 10,000 polluted lakes down growth; A student perspective on poor water quality and the environmental and political impacts

Minnesota’s state license plates have boasted of its 10,000 lakes for decades, but recent water quality tests show that Minnesota water may not be as safe as the blue and white tags lead one to believe. With approximately 37,000 miles of polluted water, an estimated 40 percent of all of Minnesota’s water should be listed officially as “impaired.” An impaired body of water is not clean enough for drinking, swimming, or fishing, and does not meet state water quality standards developed in response to the federal Clean Water Act. Lakes, rivers and streams are reported as impaired when they consistently fail to meet standards for turbidity, phosphorus content, oxygen levels, and other pollutants.

In 2008, Minnesota will update the “impaired waters” list, likely adding hundreds of water bodies to the list and officially acknowledge how far behind the state is in its pollution control efforts. A draft version lists 1,469 water body impairments while a February 2007 map of restoration projects shows that only six projects have been approved or delisted. None of these have been Rice county projects, and none of the eight proposed Rice county projects have begun. Only one of these has even been approved.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the state agency primarily responsible for monitoring and listing impaired waters, believes that most polluted waters are contaminated by nonpoint source pollution such as run-off from farm fields, lawns and urban areas. The high levels of nonpoint source pollution are the result of an absence of regulations and a reliance on farmers and others to make changes of their own accord. Although it seems optimistic to hope that people will reduce their pollution voluntarily, Lisa Thorvig, Assistant Commissioner for the MPCA, states that mandatory regulation of nonpoint source pollution may not be feasible. The poorly funded agency is already stretched thin; as of 2005, only 14 percent of lakes and eight percent of rivers have tested. Testing and monitoring is the least labor intensive part of the water quality check.

Far more controversial than testing the water is creating a restoration plan for the polluted lakes, rivers, and streams. For each body of water listed as “impaired”, the state must submit a restoration plan or total maximum daily load (TMDL). The plan outlines which pollutants are present at the site, how much each needs to be reduced to meet state standards, and the amount by which different individuals and businesses must reduce their pollution discharges. Although these steps may sound simple, it is here that the waters muddy. Molly McGregor, one of MPCA’s coordinators, explains “[There] are technical issues, but they’re also political [issues].” This is why local government officials, who know the politics of the region, are vitally important to the success of restoration projects.

However, only sewage treatment plants and other licensed and regulated point sources are mandated to reduce pollution in these restoration plans. Even if these businesses significantly reduce the amount of pollution they discharge, water quality can still decline as a result of unchecked pollution from nonpoint sources.

Unfortunately, the true victims of water pollution are local water users and Minnesota taxpayers, not companies and farms that regularly violate pollution limits. Minnesotans are the ones who must contend with restricted recreation, growth, and development as a result of contaminated water.

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