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Report on Mississippi River health shows the hardest work lies ahead

Fish and mussel populations have recovered, but much of the river’s metro portion isn’t safe for dogs to drink or swimmers to use without showering afterward.

The health of the Mississippi as it passes through the Twin Cities has improved, but challenges remain.

The State of the River Report issued at the end of last week offers sophisticated analysis of the Mississippi’s current condition as it passes through the Twin Cities: of progress made, problems ignored and challenges yet to come.

It’s also a thing of beauty in its own right – a genuine pleasure to look at and to read. Serious in tone without being somber, thorough in scope but not ponderous, it relies on the facts, not phrasing, to be steadily provocative. Photography and design are gorgeous.

All of this matters because we protect those things in our environment that move us to love and to awe. These 48 pages remind us that we are not talking about some abstract natural resource but a series of nearby scenes filled with majesty and grandeur.

The report and companion pieces are the work of Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service, which rolled them out on Thursday morning. A smattering of media coverage ensued, most of it cursory.

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Best of the bunch: pieces by the Strib’s Josephine Marcotty and MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill, both of whom went a bit  beyond the executive summary.

And that matters more than usual, in this case, because little of the depth and perspective distinguishing this report is reflected in the organizations’ one-pager (I include this link with some reluctance) or the news briefs.

You could scan the drive-by reporting and conclude that some things have gotten a lot better, some things haven’t, and some things are still head-scratchers, with the overall situation sort of a toss-up.

That would be a serious misreading, and a serious disservice to the river.

Progress on mussels and fish

Let us say right up front that, yes, the Mississippi River is in better shape, in some important ways, than it used to be. Indeed, some of the report’s most potent eye-openers lie in descriptions of how awful things really were, and not so long ago.

Examples: By the early 1900s, pollution had wiped out mussel populations below St. Anthony Falls. In 1926, a fish survey taken 25 miles downstream from the falls found two (2) living fish in the river.

Nowadays, mussel habitat and populations are generally good above the Mississippi’s confluence with the Minnesota River. In addition:

Today, the river supports a high quality fishery for several trophy species, including smallmouth bass, catfish, and walleye. Between the Ford Dam and the Hastings Dam, the walleye fishery is one of the highest quality urban fisheries in the U.S. The smallmouth bass fishery upstream of the Coon Rapids Dam is considered word-class.

It is estimated that more than 127 species of fish (119 native, eight introduced) currently live in the river up to the Coon Rapids Dam, including some, like trout-perch, that are sensitive to pollution. An estimated 75 species (65 native, 10 introduced) are now found above the Coon Rapids Dam. Some of these would not naturally be found there, and are present due to human actions or because they have been able to pass the dam during floods.

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More progress: The recovery of bald eagle populations has been especially successful along the Mississippi. Separation of sewers from stormwater drains in Minneapolis and St. Paul has dramatically reduced the flow of untreated waste into the river.

Many sources of industrial pollution have been eliminated. Bans on phosphorus in laundry detergent and lawn fertilizers have cut the flow of this oxygen-robbing, algae-promoting wrecker of aquatic ecosystems.

(At least, above the Minnesota River, whose agricultural runoff makes it the largest contributor of the phosphorus that is a serious and growing threat to Lake Pepin, and delivers about 75 percent of the sediment flowing into the metro portion of the Mississippi.)

Looking beyond the metro

The report is focused primarily on conditions in that metro portion – the 72-mile stretch of river that’s a focus of advocacy for the Friends group and also lies within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.

But to those organizations’ credit, the report looks well downstream at times. And there the situation is not so cheery, especially for Lake Pepin.

Lake Pepin’s phosphorus levels exceed Minnesota standards for water quality, and the rate of sedimentation is so high that by some estimates, the upstream third of the lake may be filled in within a century.

Generally speaking, though, the river is suffering from above-normal flow most of the time – doubling over the last 70 years, and rising by 25 percent just since 1976 in measurements taken at the Hastings dam. More water means more runoff and more erosion.

Agriculture plays a role here, too, through the use of drain tile to move excess rainfall away from row crops. So does urban, suburban and exurban development, by turning land from a sponge into a paved waterslide.

While levels of PCBs, mercury and other familiar pollutants in the river are still declining, new compounds are causing concern, from coal-tar derivatives to antimicrobial components of cleaning products to a wide range of pharmaceuticals that, apparently, many people are still flushing down the toilet.

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Somewhat incredibly, given advances in municipal sewage treatment, contamination with E. coli and other bacteria still exceeds state standards on most portions of the river from the Coon Rapids dam to St. Paul, and in other sections where the prevailing level is within safe limits, bacteria sometimes spike into the danger zone. Swimmers are advised to bathe after leaving the river, and dog-walkers are advised not to let their pets drink from it.

Perhaps because the subject is watery, more than a few of the quick-hit media accounts reached for the glass-half-full-or-half-empty device. The report itself refrains from any such attempt to reduce the complexity of the river’s health to a single measurement, or its recent history to a single trend line.

Harder work remains

But what these findings reflect quite consistently is that in the half-century since the Clean Water Act and other river-restoring efforts came into being, we’ve done quite well at cleaning up the worst industrial effluent but made only a beginning, at best, at taking on urban runoff and agricultural pollution.

This is not to say that the efforts to date have been easy, only that the challenges ahead are much, much harder.

For a very clear sense of this you could scan the report’s companion guides for personal stewardship and policy change, advising individuals and governments, respectively, on what to do in the years to come.

Individuals: Pick up after your pet, bag your grass clippings and leaves, quit using soaps containing the antimicrobial compound triclosan, and don’t flush your leftover pills down the toilet. Instead, find a pharmacy that will take them back, or “dissolve medicines in liquid, mix with fine materials (coffee grounds, cat litter) and place into a sturdy, sealable sandwich bag or plastic container before putting it in the garbage.”

Governments: Establish new limits for phosphorus and nitrates in the river, set statewide standards for runoff control, phase out triclosan, ban coal-tar pavement sealers, create a statewide pharmaceutical management system and – my personal favorite fantasy – “establish a statewide agricultural pollution control system.”

Well, I don’t know how you read the current political climate for expanding environmental protections.

Myself, I’m cautiously pessimistic right now and think the odds of getting every man, woman and child in Minnesota to mix dissolved meds with coffee grounds and bag it all up for the garbage haulers, might be higher than the chances of getting any recent Minnesota legislature to take the second agenda seriously.

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Especially that last item, about agricultural pollution. Which, sad to say but true, ought to be the very first item of any serious program to lift our portion of the Mississippi River above its current state — where dogs shouldn’t drink it and swimmers should hasten to flush it off their skin — sometime before the upper third of Lake Pepin returns to farmland.


Surprisingly little comment has been stirred up so far by the State of the River Report, but the New Ulm Journal offered this editorial  and Joe Sheeran had a post on the Minnesota 2020 blog.