Polluting the Lake Pepin research pool

  • Article by: LAWRENCE LANDHERR and WILLIS MATTISON
  • Updated: May 5, 2011 - 10:18 PM

Lake Pepin is filling up with dirt, and unless something changes, within decades the top third of that breathtaking sweep of the Mississippi River will become a fetid marsh. The state is about to release a long-awaited report that will, for the first time, provide a detailed analysis of what Minnesotans must do to slow the disappearance of the lake and return the Mississippi to the clear, fish-filled river it once was. (IN THIS PHOTO) ] The sediment flowing out of the Minnesota River (left) is clear in this photo of the confluence of the Minnesota (left) and Mississippi (right) Rivers near Fort Snelling.

Photo: Brian_peterson, Brian Peterson

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Josephine Marcotty's article "Strangling our rivers" (April 17) clearly laid out what is now known about the sources of sediment in Lake Pepin.

The science points overwhelmingly to the heart of the Minnesota River Valley as the source of the problem -- and to the plowing, draining and row-cropping of the majority of land as the main cause.

The story also alluded, however, to certain agricultural interests not being satisfied with this account.

They call for yet more research to be conducted on the role of changing weather patterns, and on whether a high proportion of the sediment filling Lake Pepin has natural causes.

In fact, some of that suggested research has already been conducted and paid for by Minnesota Soybean Growers.

The researcher in this work, Satish Gupta of the University of Minnesota's Department of Soil, Water and Climate, has concluded that most of the sediment filling Lake Pepin has natural origins rather than being caused by the farming practices, as reported in the Star Tribune's story.

Contrary to evidence in the scientific studies on which Marcotty based her article, the evidence Gupta uses is largely anecdotal and highly speculative, and is not quantified. Predictably, Gupta's paper on the subject is serving as endless grist for agriculture's public-relations mill.

Gupta's fans don't care if his work ignores the core scientific disciplines needed to understand movement of water and sediment through a landscape.

We are sorely disappointed that Gupta's research continues to appear in farm papers and in public meetings, but we realize that this is the only place such research could be published.

You will never find this kind of bogus research published in credible, peer reviewed scientific journals. We get that.

But we are most upset with presentations of his reports at meetings sponsored by the university itself. Allowing Gupta's use of the school's facilities as platforms for publicizing his research has the effect of restoring unwarranted credibility to his work.

How are Minnesotans supposed to have an informed conversation on problems facing our lakes and streams when university faculty with little expertise in the matter put out bogus papers, at the behest of the agricultural industry, and are allowed to use the university itself as a platform to peddle this rubbish?

The U's mishandling of the debut of the film "Troubled Waters" last year cast doubt on its independence from powerful economic interests such as the agricultural industry.

Gupta's agriculture-friendly research, and the university's role in publicizing it through on-campus and off-campus educational forums, casts an even wider pall of doubt over the independence of academic research at the U.

We urge university leaders to take responsibility for such misuses of academic freedom, both to clear the shadow of doubt hanging over the university and to enable Minnesotans to engage in debate based on the highest quality of scientific research.

Lawrence Landherr, Rochester, and Willis Mattison, Osage, are retired regional directors for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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