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Environmental Op-Ed Series: Clean Water Is Crucial in a "Land of 10,000 Lakes"

April 29, 2010 By Bryna Helle, Student, Macalester College
As the warm weather brings Minnesotans out in droves to enjoy the lake paths and scenic views, we must bring our attention back to one of the Earth's most valuable resources: water.  Minnesota's rivers and lakes sprawl across the landscape, but their abundance should not be mistaken as immunity from pollution. Ninety-one percent of tested Minnesota lakes are contaminated with pesticide pollution. In the American Rivers Organization 2009 report, the St. Croix River was identified as endangered due to the threats of nonpoint source pollution, or pollutants picked up by runoff and brought directly into the waters, from residents in the watershed.

The majority of rivers flowing through Minnesota are just beginning their journey across the country. The pollution is not only felt in our state but also by all the citizens living downstream.

A lot of attention has been paid to stopping point sources of pollution, such as power plants and industrial farms, where the origin of the pollution can be found and remedied. Far less attention has been given to halting nonpoint source pollution. We must call attention to the impacts of citizens on Minnesota watersheds and establish programs to improve the state of our valuable resource.

Water has the unique ability to absorb and dissolve a multitude of substances. When the snowmelt spreads across the streets towards the storm drains, it brings with it the salt and sand dregs from our winter of icy driving conditions, oil and gasoline. When we nurture our spring plantings with fertilizers and pesticides, these substances will also be absorbed by run off and flow directly into our river systems. The resulting abnormally high concentrations of pollutants detrimentally alter the rivers and lakes of the entire freshwater ecosystem, as well as our drinking water supply.

In 2008, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released its Nonpoint Source Management Program, which is certainly a step in the right direction. However, it offers mainly tools to handle the current state of pollutants in Minnesota's waters, not plans to prevent the nonpoint source pollution. Regulations need to be put in place to encourage sustainable improvements to resident's individual yards, especially when their property is nearby a major natural water resource. Among these regulations should be a requirement for porous building materials in place of solid surfaces that block rainwater from entering the soil, such as pavers instead of concrete patios. When rainwater is allowed to seep into the soil, it undergoes a natural filtration process before it enters our freshwater, including the Great Lakes. Many facilities in Duluth, Minnesota have utilized porous pavers to achieve a significant reduction in polluted storm water runoff.
A portion of each yard, or city-owned boulevard, should be home to native prairie species whose root systems naturally draw rainwater deep into the soil instead of simply flowing down the streets.  The captured rainwater is filtered through the soil and replenishes our aquifers.  Maplewood, Minnesota started installing rain gardens in 1996 and has found them to be a successful method of storm water management. The city now has 30 gardens on city land and 450 home gardens. The MPCA and the EPA recognize porous paving materials and rain gardens as Best Management Practices for storm water management.

Next, information regarding the effects of pesticides and fertilizers needs to be easier for the general population to access. Currently, pesticide packaging is required to put "caution", "warning" or "danger poison" on the label signifying its toxicity rating. This rating scale offers little information to the consumer about the product's impact on water or the environment. Likewise, fertilizers are only required to show warnings when their use can be harmful to certain crops. Every pesticide and fertilizer label should have a clearly stated pollution rating. Consumers need to see the direct connection between their use of chemicals in the yard and the poor condition of Minnesota's waters.
The Freshwater Society has named 2010 the Year of Water in an effort to raise awareness about the polluted waters in Minnesota. What will you do to help preserve Minnesota's waters? As you get your yard ready for the summer season, consider using porous materials on any new surfaces or replacing a section of your lawn with a low maintenance native rain garden. Know that the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn will be felt by Minnesota's river system and use them sparingly, especially before heavy rainfall. What will the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" be without clean water? Show Minnesota you care about the life it its waters; stop your pollution at home.

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