Minnesota River still ailing

Skeptics ask whether hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the right strategies to clean up the river.

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Its tributaries showed some improvement, but in the Minnesota River itself, pictured here near Pike Island, fish are as scarce as ever.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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After 20 years of cleanup efforts and close to a billion dollars in public spending, the Minnesota River is, well, not much better than it was in 1990, according to a long-awaited assessment released Monday.

Some of the river's headwater creeks have more varieties of fish, and some local streams are providing healthier habitat for wildlife in and around the water, state pollution officials reported. But the tiny insects that make up the bottom of the food chain are still not back, and the fish are as scarce as ever in the main streams and the big river itself, the study found.

The disappointing report card, on a river considered the state's most troubled, is prompting serious questions about whether the state's largely voluntary approach to protecting its waters is working, said both state officials and clean-water advocates.

"We are not getting very much for our investment," said Gene Merriam, president of the Freshwater Society. "We have to circle up and figure out a better way to manage our resources."

The study by the state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) is the third progress report since 1992, when then Gov. Arne Carlson stood on the banks of the Minnesota holding a jar of dirty water and vowed to clean up the river by 2002. Each time, researchers returned to the same sites throughout the Minnesota River basin to count both types and numbers of fish, invertebrate insects, and to measure habitat like grassy banks and shade-covered streams.

In the meantime, the state spent millions of dollars each year to pay farmers to idle crop land, to encourage land-management practices that would reduce erosion and runoff, and for monitoring and research. In the 1990s, upgrades of wastewater treatment plants that cost hundreds of millions of dollars reduced pollution. But even 10 years ago the lack of progress in the river was raising the same questions that are being raised today.

"We can't spend a billion dollars and have outcomes that are pretty much a wash and say that's good enough," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored legislation requiring the monitoring report.

However, some experts say the report focuses on narrow measurements, and that some state leaders are too impatient for quick results. It took 100 years to destroy the river, they say, and it will take that or longer to bring it back to health.

"After a century of significant neglect, you are not going to see results as fast as legislators and others would like," said Shannon Fisher, director of the Water Resources Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who has been involved in the cleanup effort since Carlson launched it. "For every year of degradation you are looking at four to 10 years of restoration to recover that one year."

A firehose

Glenn Skuta, PCA water monitoring manager, said to produce the most recent assessment, researchers went back to 114 of the same sites they visited 20 years ago to count fish and 33 sites to count insects -- both important measures of the river's health.

In the small headwater streams, they found higher numbers of smallmouth bass, sturgeon, blue suckers, minnows and other species. That's also where they found much of the improved habitat, he said, which suggests that the two might be linked. "That may be an indication that there has been some good work done," he said. "Conservation practices on the land are helping."

But in the larger streams and the river itself not much has changed, he said, and the number and type of insects hadn't changed significantly anywhere.

The problem, Skuta said, is probably excessive volumes of water being drained from the land -- both from farm fields and urban areas -- and forced into channels that are too small. He said it was like using a firehose instead of a garden hose, which scours the banks and fills the water with floating sediment.

Merriam, of the Freshwater Society, said he was most disheartened to learn that there was little correlation between conservation practices on the land and water quality. He described it as "random acts of conservation" that did not add up to a significant result.

Both state officials and environmental advocates said the study will intensify the ongoing debate about whether the state needs to impose stiffer regulations and do a better job of enforcing existing rules.

"We've been working on this for 20 years," Wagenius said. "You cannot say we are on the right course.''

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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