Water quality remains a Minnesota problem. State launches effort to make improvements.

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ST. PAUL—The governor called for making the Minnesota River "fishable and swimmable" within 10 years.

That was then-Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson 25 years ago. The river is in the southern half of Minnesota where scientists still say much of the water should not be used for fishing or recreation.

While the southwest faces the most water quality problems and the northeast the least, experts say no part of the state is free from such issues.

Current Gov. Mark Dayton announced earlier this year that he wants a 25 percent improvement in water quality by 2025. To help achieve that, he has launched a series of water quality town hall meetings to learn more about the problem and offer fixes.

"I ask all Minnesotans to join me in finding solutions that will ensure our children and grandchildren inherit clean water to drink, swim and fish in," he said. "This is everyone's challenge, and everyone's responsibility."

The first meeting, July 31 in Rochester, drew twice the 150 people expected. Meetings resume Wednesday, Aug. 16, and continue into October.

Minnesotans mostly have themselves to blame for water problems. Other than some mercury pollution that arrives in Minnesota via the air, mostly affecting northern Minnesota fish, pollution originates in the state. Nearly all Minnesota water comes from rainfall and snow melt, not from other states.

"No water flows in, it all flows out," Cathy Rofshus of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said. "It makes us more responsible because we are a headwaters state."

The situation is better than the 1920 and 1930s, when Rofshus said the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities was known as a "dead zone" because there was not a living fish to be found with 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the river each day.

Today, she said, "it is much better in some ways. for example, wastewater treatment."

But sewage treatment facilities and pipes that move sewage to the plants also are among the prime concerns. They are getting older and, Rofshus said, $4.2 billion is needed over 20 years to make improvements.

About half of the state's sewage plants are more than 20 years old, the time they were designed to serve.

Clean water pipes also are deteriorating, as are water treatment plants.

Overall, 40 percent of lakes and streams fail clean-water tests.

"The general trends is water quality is exceptionally good in the northeast..." Rofshus said. "It deteriorates as it moves toward the southwest."

The southwest is where farming is the heaviest.

"Water quality is a direct reflection of how you use the land," she said.

Septic systems used in rural areas combine with crop fertilizer and manure as major water quality concerns, Rofshus said.

Road salt that melting ice carries off roads and streets is adding to pollution problems. So is what the MInnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy calls "runaway algae growth," which impedes swimming and other water recreation and can kill fish.

Rothfus sees a new threat that few are discussing so far: hard water treatment equipment.

Many cities are reporting excessive amounts of chlorine in their wastewater. Chlorine is a waste byproduct of home water treatment machines, and sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove it.

"It is a really difficult problem to solve," Rothfus said.

The chlorine is toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Levels are becoming a concern.

New high-efficiency water softeners, while more expensive to buy, use less salt, which means lower operating costs for users and better water quality.

"Education and outreach is going to be a big item," said Sean Christensen, Willmar Public Works director.

The news is not all bad.

The pollution agency reports that water clarity in 25 percent of Minnesota's lakes has improved, while it has become worse in just 10 percent.

Thes state is wrapping up an initial round of extensive water monitoring statewide this year, with a second round just now beginning in a few areas. Very early results in the second round of tests are promising.

Another factor the Dayton administration says is helping water, and has the potential of doing a lot more, is the governor's controversial buffer law. It requires vegetative buffers, or an approved alternative, between cropland and lakes and streams.

Rothfus said a study shows when more than 85 percent of buffers in an area are intact, aquatic life is in excellent shape. But when less than 25 percent of a buffer is intact, the water has "poor or very poor aquatic life."

The buffer law is not fully implemented, with some farmers receiving a reprieve to install them until next year.

Katie Pratt of the state Environmental Quality Board said she is optimistic the water quality town hall meetings will help.

"We are going to have this really rich data set," she said.

Dayton administration workers will go through all the comments and release a report to the public next fall. Dayton will use it to make recommendations to the 2018 Legislature, which begins in February.

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The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has posted maps showing where the worst water and air pollution is located in the state at tinyurl.com/watermn

Water meetings planned

The Dayton administration plans meetings to gather suggestions on how to improve water quality. Each two-hour meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m.

In some communities, the state Agriculture Department plans hearings at 4 p.m. the same day as water meetings to discuss some of its programs and get feedback.

Here are dates and locations:

• Aug. 16, Minnesota State University Mankato, Centennial Student Union. Ag town hall, Minnesota State University, Centennial Student Union, Heritage Room

• Aug. 17, Marshall, Southwest Minnesota State University Conference Center. Ag town hall, Southwest Minnesota State University, Charter Hall Room 219

• Sept. 5, University of Minnesota-Crookston, Bede Ballroom, Sargeant Student Center. Ag town hall, University of Minnesota-Crookston, Dowell Hall, Room 206.

• Sept. 6, St Cloud Community and Technical College cafeteria. Ag town hall, St. Cloud Technical and Community College, Northway Building, Room 1-155.

• Sept. 12, Ely, Grand Ely Lodge, 400 N. Pioneer Road.

• Sept. 13, Bemidji, Bemidji State University, American Indian Resource Center. Ag town hall, Bemidji State University, Hobson Memorial Union, Crying Wolf Room.

• Sept. 26, Minneapolis Urban League, 2100 Plymouth Ave. N.

• Oct. 4, Burnsville, Diamondhead Education, 200 W Burnsville Parkway.

• Oct. 5, Stillwater High School.