Carrie Jennings flits across the South Fork Crow River like a water bug within the outdated one-seat canoe she purchased years in the past for $100, then pauses midstream to look down on the brown water.
“That is loopy cloudy,” she mutters.
She has come to take a look at this higher attain of the Crow River because it begins its journey by means of central Minnesota farm nation to the Mississippi River — exhibiting how one little river may cause a lot harm.
The paddle comes as work will get underway on a serious new multi-county water high quality plan for the South Fork Crow watershed beneath the state of Minnesota’s “One Watershed, One Plan” framework.
The stakes are excessive.
The state’s cherished Mississippi River is clear because it emerges in northern Minnesota and heads south. Then it meets the Crow River, the primary main agricultural river emptying into it, and its nutrient air pollution doubles, state air pollution officers say, including phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment. You possibly can see the water change on the intersection, some paddlers say.
The Minnesota Air pollution Management Company (MPCA) caught a fats exclamation level on the spot, close to Dayton north of the Twin Cities, on its map of the Higher Mississippi.
Jennings, analysis and coverage director with the St. Paul nonprofit Freshwater Society, factors together with her paddle to some key the explanation why.
Giant black plastic pipes jut from the banks of the South Fork Crow River close to Cosmos, Minnesota in Meeker County, pouring water into it at almost each bend. It’s tile drainage water, coming from beneath fields which are crammed largely with corn and soybeans right here, about 80 miles west of the place the Crow joins the Mississippi.
The almost invisible community of pipes is sort of a huge underground freeway system, draining away water to maximise crop yields. The tile line drainage carries farm chemical compounds — state air pollution regulators say it’s the one greatest supply of nitrate within the Mississippi, delivering 43% of it.
Together with the floor runoff, the tile drainage additionally will increase the Crow’s quantity. Excessive flows claw at its banks, a dynamic solely worsened by local weather change’s heavier rains.
The scouring exposes the roots of mighty cottonwoods and different timber on the banks, a lot of which have toppled into the river. There must be a sandy, gravelly combine on the Crow’s banks and riverbed, Jennings stated. As an alternative there’s a thick black mud, like a quicksand, that sucks off footwear.
Scoured river banks, versus fields, have been a rising supply of the sediment within the Mississippi River, she stated. High soil washed off fields remains to be important, she stated, “it’s simply that the massive improve has been from the non-field sources.”
Jennings stated she expects to see water that brown within the Minnesota River, the state’s notoriously soiled agricultural river to the south, however not within the Crow. And that is simply the Crow’s begin. It solely picks up extra because it rolls downstream by means of heavy ag nation similar to Renville County earlier than becoming a member of the primary Crow River at Rockford, Minnesota.
From there the Crow runs to the Mississippi, bringing its share of the air pollution driving the massive and rising oxygen-depleted “lifeless zone” within the Gulf of Mexico.
“If our system of agriculture does this to rivers this far up within the Mississippi River watershed, think about the cumulative harm by the point you attain the Gulf,” Jennings stated. “This isn’t a thriller that must be solved. We all know why these are rivers impaired and we all know learn how to repair them.”
Agriculture isn’t the one supply of the Crow’s air pollution, nevertheless it’s a major one. Wastewater remedy crops and metropolis storm water runoff consider. The underside line is that almost all of the land within the Crow River’s watersheds is in agriculture, as row cropping marches farther north in Minnesota.
At situation are problematic agricultural practices similar to overapplying nitrogen fertilizer and manure, extra drain tiling with pipes that dump straight into ditches and streams, and over-tilling the soil. East of Cosmos, the place Jennings paddled, the South Fork Crow meanders naturally; upstream it’s an unnaturally straight farm drainage channel.
Because the Clear Water Act exempts ag drainage and runoff, environmental regulators depend on convincing farmers to voluntarily undertake finest administration practices: making use of fertilizer extra exactly, planting cowl crops to seize extra nitrogen within the soil and altering tile drain shops. One repair is draining tile water right into a wetland or basin first.
Such practices nonetheless aren’t mainstream. Change has been gradual. It may all take many years, stated MPCA watershed undertaking supervisor Scott Lucas: “So many alternative issues have to vary.”
Giant stretches of each of the Crow’s primary forks stay impaired for aquatic recreation or fish consumption, and for aquatic life similar to bugs. Whereas there’s been progress through the years reducing phosphorous within the Mississippi River, there’s been virtually none on reducing nitrate, air pollution officers say.
‘I don’t know once we would have been in a position to plant with out the tile’
Native farmers say they’re conscious of the issues and wish to be good stewards of the land. However weighing conservation vs. manufacturing may be tough when farm revenue margins are skinny. And altering entrenched farming practices is difficult, stated Joe Norman, district technician with the Meeker County Soil & Water Conservation District.
But, slowly, practices are evolving. For instance, authorities packages have funded 81 wetland restorations within the South Fork Crow River Watershed since 2004, state information present. Nonetheless, whereas they could profit water high quality, most aren’t the kind designed to gather and deal with tile drainage runoff, stated David Wall, environmental analysis scientist on the Minnesota Air pollution Management Company.
Doug Adams, who farms 1,500 acres together with his household close to Cosmos, together with land on the South Fork Crow, stated he switched to strip tilling, which disturbs the soil much less and leaves plant particles on the floor for higher soil cowl. It reduce his fertilizer use by 40%, he stated. It additionally retains his topsoil in place and reduces runoff into the river, with no change in his crop yield.
However reducing again on his tile drainage system? Not an choice. This spring was moist and late, he stated. Fields had been waterlogged.
“I don’t know once we would have been in a position to plant with out the tile,” Adams stated.
Adams stated he doesn’t suppose his tile water is polluted, and that he wouldn’t be afraid to drink it.
Cities, too, are making modifications. Hutchinson, Minnesota is embarking on a multi-million greenback undertaking to deal with sediment and air pollution the South Fork Crow carries into Otter and Campbell lakes, two shallow lakes within the metropolis. Which means working with native landowners, shoring up crumbling stream banks, restoring wetlands and including native buffer plantings, amongst different issues.
The Crow River’s affect on the Mississippi River is well-known within the watershed world, nevertheless it’s tough to make folks care, stated John Paulson, Hutchinson’s undertaking environmental regulatory supervisor. Communities want to deal with the issue regionally, the place they’ll see it.
That’s what Kandiyohi County did. The county, positioned about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, simply completed a decades-long undertaking to revive a big drained prairie wetland within the headwaters space of the South Fork Crow close to Willmar, the Kandiyohi County seat. Greater than a dozen households bought the state everlasting conservation easements to rebuild Grass Lake. It now holds and filters farm drainage and storm water from Willmar, stated Kandiyohi County drainage supervisor Loren Engelby. A big gate valve permits them to handle water ranges.
Already, frogs and turtles and birds are returning, Engelby stated. Grass Lake’s water flows to Lake Wakanda and Little Kandiyohi Lake, impaired lakes which are the official headwaters of the South Fork Crow River.
However you would argue that the river’s true supply is the outdated Kandi Mall parking zone in Willmar, stated DNR wildlife supervisor Cory Netland, who works within the space. The mall was constructed over a cow pasture comprised of a drained wetland, and the parking zone drains into a big ditch that runs to Grass Lake.
Engelby calls Grass Lake “an enormous kidney” that he expects will considerably cut back nitrate, phosphorous and sediment washing into the South Fork Crow.
“It is a huge piece of the puzzle,” he stated, “nevertheless it’s a really massive puzzle.”
The Lens is republishing this story, which initially appeared within the Minneapolis Star Tribune, as a part of its partnership with the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. The Ag & Water Desk is an editorially unbiased reporting community primarily based on the College of Missouri College of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Household Basis.