Ababiy: We need to better protect Minnesota waterways

Gubernatorial candidates may weaken environmental protections put in place by the last administration.

Jonathan Ababiy

On the map, the Minnesota River, our state’s namesake river, makes a slow and steady descent southeast through the farmland of southern Minnesota. At the Mankato, the river rises sharply north towards the Twin Cities, reversing the southern course it took away from Big Stone Lake, the long, thin border lake between South Dakota and Minnesota. As the river climbs towards the Twin Cities, barges full of grain chug in the direction of St. Paul and the Mississippi. 

The confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers at Fort Snelling is visually striking. By the time the Minnesota River reaches the Mississippi, it has become an impenetrable green. The northwoods-turned-urban Mississippi River that you would never dare to swim in looks almost clean next to the Minnesota. 

Why? A recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that although there is slightly less pollution in the Minnesota River, overall flow has increased — meaning total pollution is still high. The river’s aquatic life is struggling and its high levels of pollution have made Mankato’s drinking water vulnerable.

So it is disappointing that both of Minnesota gubernatorial candidates plan to weaken Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature water buffer laws, which placed a mandate on landowners to plant vegetation buffers on all public lakes, rivers and ditches. According to the MPCA, the buffers are natural filters that are critical to making waterways healthy again.

The Minnesota River has an extensive watershed in some of the most prime agricultural land in the state. The crops that grow here drive lower Minnesota’s economy and feed the world. However, the innumerable streams, ditches and rivers that snake through this farmland are susceptible to the runoff from this agricultural production. Rain often washes phosphorus, nitrates and sediment from farmland into waterways. These increases in pollutants can quickly ruin water quality. Furthermore, much of the wetlands along waterways have been replaced with farmland, so water has begun to flow faster than streams and rivers can healthily handle. 

Buffers provide a way of preventing these pollutants from entering our water system. Research from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that works with farmers, shows that vegetated buffers can remove more than 50 percent of the nutrients and pesticides in runoff and 75 percent or more of sediment. The implementation of buffers can greatly improve the health of a waterway. 

The positive changes these buffers can make have downstream effects. The Mississippi absorbs the pollution and sediment that we see at its confluence with the Minnesota River, so much so that it lightens the Mississippi to a green color as well. Eighty percent of the sediment at the Mississippi’s confluence with the St. Croix is from the Minnesota River. Simply through the natural flow of the river, the pollutants of western Minnesotan farms can make their way into the Twin Cities, then down into Southeastern Minnesota and the lower Midwest. 

The health of these rivers should not be jeopardized. Whoever is our next governor must ensure that our buffer laws stay in place. While the law could allow for more flexibility, its beneficial core environmental protections must remain. Buffers may be small, but they have a large impact on the health and quality of our water. 

The name Minnesota is derived from the Dakota phrase, “Mni Sota Makoce,” which means “Land Where the Waters Reflect the Clouds.” Our new governor should make sure our state’s water remains that way.