The latest checkup for Minnesota’s premiere aquatic artery — the Mississippi River — was both reassuring and alarming.
Healthier populations of fish, eagles and mussels continue to reflect the river’s gradual recovery from less enlightened eras when it was treated as a convenient garbage dump. But this world-renowned waterway faces pollution threats old and new, according to the landmark State of the River report released this week. If Minnesotans want to leave a river future generations can enjoy and tap for drinking water, greater contributions are needed from individual consumers and, in particular, a powerful state industry — agriculture.
The report is a joint project of the Friends of the Mississippi River advocacy group and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It’s the partnership’s second examination of the Mississippi’s run through the metro. Like the first report in 2012, this one provides a valuable public service to the state by breaking down water-quality science into metrics that inform and inspire. An accompanying teacher’s guide also merits wide use in schools.
The report pragmatically recommends everyday steps to improve the river’s health. A new type of pollution highlighted is linked to synthetic fabrics that release plastic fibers that wash down the drain. The concern is if they build up in fish tissue. Choosing natural fabrics helps avoid this.
Practices such as picking up pet waste, reducing salt use on winter sidewalks, and disposing of prescription medications by methods other than flushing them down the toilet are important individual actions, too. One jaw-dropping report datapoint: 73 percent of male smallmouth bass caught in Lake Pepin have reproductive mutations, which may be linked to human drugs in the water.
Costly but critical upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants after the 1972 Clean Water Act merit much of the credit for the river’s improved health today. Improvements to these plants still have a role to play in improving river health, but it is a diminishing one because of the good work already done.
Reducing the still significant amount of river pollutants will require much greater assistance from agriculture, an industry exempted from the Clean Water Act. Pollutants such as bacteria from manure spread on fields, and sediment and fertilizer swept downstream, pose serious challenges to the future of the Mississippi and its tributaries.
The conversation about agriculture too often falsely boils down to this: either farmers prosper or we have costly clean-water regulations. While stronger regulations are needed, more market-based policies, such as those that reward farmers for growing runoff-reducing cover crops and perennials, are also valuable and have a shot at passage in this political climate. Minnesota’s new “Working Lands Restoration Program” strikes this valuable middle ground. Policies that strengthen this program and build on its strategy should find ample support in our state.