Terrifying but True Facts about Pollution in Minnesota’s Waterways

Environment Minnesota

Today on Halloween, Environment Minnesota unveiled a new factsheet that compiles the most frightening realities on toxic pollutants, alien invaders, green slime from algae, lakes being buried alive, mutating fish, and ghoulish bacteria that haunt Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and drinking water.

Environment Minnesota was joined by Peg Furshong with Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) based in Montevideo, Darrell Gerber from Clean Water Action – Minnesota, and John Ansinson, Chief of Resource Management with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

“Halloween is the season to be scared, but Minnesotans shouldn’t have to be afraid of swimming and fishing in our lakes and rivers or disturbed by the quality of their drinking water,” said Environment Minnesota’s Samantha Chadwick. “Manure and other pollution from agriculture and big industry are making our rivers into a potion of pollution perfect for poisonous drinking water, E. coli, and slimy algae blooms.”

In its new, frightening fact sheet, Environment Minnesota found that:

  1. High nitrate levels, unsafe for drinking water, were found in 27% of monitored streams and rivers in Minnesota in 2013. High nitrate in drinking water can cause a potentially fatal condition in infants known as “blue baby syndrome.” It is estimated that thousands of MN drinking wells are contaminated with too much nitrate. The city of St. Peter spent $18.8 million on water treatment to deal with problems in its water wells. 
  1. Over 70% of the nitrogen pollution that gets into Minnesota waterways comes from cropland, as a byproduct of fertilizer and manure from the agricultural industry. These cropland sources are exempt from the Clean Water Act.
  1. Minnesota sends 211 tons per year of nitrogen downstream, contributing to the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted area that forms each summer where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf. This summer the dead zone was 5800 square miles – the size of Connecticut.
  1. Around half of Minnesota’s waterways are classified “impaired” meaning they don’t meet water quality standards and may be unsafe for fishing and swimming. In the most recent list update, 511 water bodies or river segments were added to the impaired list and only 13 were removed.
  1. 416 of Minnesota’s water impairments are for levels of E. coli and fecal coliform that make the water unsafe for swimming.
  1. 527 of Minnesota’s water impairments are from phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause algal blooms which cover lakes (and anyone who uses them) with green slime. Some types of algae are toxic and dangerous, like blue green algae that can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory issues or even liver failure.
  1. Industrial facilities dump over 1.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Minnesota rivers and streams every year.
  1. A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found 73% of smallmouth bass at a site in Lake Pepin showed signs of mutated sexual organs.
  1. 1,400 of water bodies tested so far in Minnesota have dangerously high levels of mercury contamination.
  1.  Lake Pepin is filling in at 10 times its natural rate. Each year, one million metric tons of sediment fills in the river from the south end of the metro area to Lake Pepin. That’s like the volume of a downtown city block filled over the height of the Foshay Tower (454 feet). At this rate it will be completely filled in with sediment in 340 years.
  1.  Non-native invasive carp species have made their way into Minnesota. Individual fish have now been found in the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. A carcass of the leaping silver carp was found, dead, this summer on a dam just north of Winona. Another alien species taking over Minnesota lakes is the zebra mussel, infesting such popular and iconic waters as Lake Minnetonka
  1. Sulfide mining, never before conducted in Minnesota, is now being proposed in northeastern Minnesota. The metals mining industry is the top polluting industry in the country, releasing 1.6 billion pounds of toxics according to the 2010 Toxics Release Inventory. The environmental review for the proposed PolyMet mine in Minnesota predicts 500 years of water pollution.
  1.  Scientists are finding tiny particles of plastic, or “microplastic pollution” in the Great Lakes, including Lake Superior. Some of the tiny plastics come from products like personal care products that contain “microbeads.” The plastic does not biodegrade in the water and can be ingested by fish and humans.


“We are still dealing with legacy problems that continue to raise their heads like vampires from the grave,” said Darrell Gerber, Program Coordinator at Clean Water Action. “Pollutants like phosphorus, nitrogen, sediment and mercury are continuing challenges. At the same time we have over 80,000 chemicals that have not been adequately assessed for their impact on our health and environment. Like science experiments gone wrong in horror movies, we are the unwitting subjects of a test featuring the chemical soup of our waters today.”

These shocking facts demonstrate what’s at stake for Minnesotans who love their waterways. Our beloved lakes, the mighty Mississippi River and all of our rivers, lakes and streams are cherished for fishing, swimming, and boating but that is threatened when our water becomes a witch’s brew of pollutants. We’ve also seen our drinking water so polluted it’s dangerous for people’s health.

Lark Weller, Water Quality Coordinator with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, chimed in on today’s release as well: “so why do we care about pollution issues like these? The National Park Service knows how much Minnesotans value clean water–and every day we see them recreating on and around the Mississippi River. We’re fortunate to have such a world-class recreational asset in our back yard. We help connect thousands of people to the river for paddling, fishing, and birding–not to mention the many wonderful trails along the Mississippi. These activities are not nearly as enjoyable (and are sometimes not possible) when the river is more polluted. Protecting the Mississippi River from too much pollution is protecting the outdoor experiences so many of us care about.”

“It’s time to give Minnesota waterways the Halloween treat they deserve — protection from polluters,” said Samantha Chadwick. “We need our leaders to act now, and some solutions are underway. The Dayton administration needs to move forward with strong limits to pollution like phosphorus and nitrogen – protections that are underway already. Nationally, we also urge the Obama administration to keep moving forward to close loopholes in the Clean Water Act so that all our waterways are protected. For next Halloween we hope our waterways will be less scary.”


The factsheet can be accessed online at: http://environmentminnesota.org/reports



Environment Minnesota is a statewide citizen based environmental organization working for clean air, clean water, and open space. www.EnvironmentMinnesota.org. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.