U pours resources, know-how into cleaning Minnesota River

A team of University researchers is working with farmers to reduce pollutants in the river.

Angela Gray

Minnesota – land of 10,000 lakes, home to Paul Bunyan, home to the largest mall in America, and also home to one of the dirtiest rivers.

The Minnesota River remains among the most polluted rivers in the United States and is the state’s largest contributor to overall nutrient pollution, killing marine life in places as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

In an attempt to reduce sediments and pollutants from runoff in the Minnesota River basin, the University has focused on strategically placing alternative crops along the river, said Craig Sheaffer, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics.

Most pollutants in the Minnesota River are traced back to high levels of nutrients derived from agricultural chemicals and fertilizers that are entering the water throughout the Minnesota River basin.

The Minnesota River basin accepts runoff from about 17,000 square miles of land in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota.

Sheaffer said a team of University researchers and out-of-state organizations are experimenting with perennial flaks, alfalfa, native prairies, willow and cotton to diversify the landscape near the river.

“We are looking at how well the alternative crops adapt to the climate and soil within the basin,” he said.

In Minnesota, more than 90 percent of land through which the river flows is associated with agricultural activity, primarily corn and soybeans.

Over the years, the area’s wetlands have been drained and its prairie and savannah-type ecosystems have been converted into farmland for corn and soybeans.

Because corn and soybeans leave the soil bare during high-moisture months, the Minnesota River gets increased runoff.

Sheaffer said implementing new crops and diversifying the landscape and crops can provide long-term security for farmers.

“With only two annual crops, you lack a diversified income and are susceptible (to losing profit),” he said.

University researcher Dean Current said the preliminary test results showed planting alternative crops along the river holds the soil in place and can save farmers money.

Current said challenges exist, because corn and soybeans are commodities supported by government and alternative crops such as perennials are not.

“I have farmers from Montevideo, Minn., telling us if they plant corn and soybeans and they fail, there is government insurance to cover any losses,” he said. “But if farmers use perennials and fail, they lose everything.”

Sheaffer said the dilemma is that markets are clearly established for crops such as corn and soybeans.

“For producers to shift to perennials there needs to be a viable market for the alternative crops,” Sheaffer said.

Current said the next step is to put small water sheds into the river and plant perennial crops around them to collect more data.

While University researchers track the compatibility of alternative crops with the river, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is monitoring pollution levels.

Larry Gunderson, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Minnesota River Basin coordinator, said the Minnesota River is polluted because of human activities.

“Monitoring stations are set up to determine how polluted the waters are,” he said. “From the monitoring stations, samples are taken to labs to test the water, including the Minnesota Department of Health’s labs, which the the agency most frequently relies on.”

Gunderson said to address the pollution problems people need to work together and build partnerships with farmers and construction workers.

“Farmers need to keep their soil covered and keep vegetation in place near steep sloping areas, so when it rains the soil doesn’t move as much with the raindrops,” he said.

The courts have pushed for the Total Maximum Daily Load Program, which is part of the federal Clean Water Act, Gunderson said, and requires each state to identify impaired waters and devise solutions to reduce daily pollutant-loading levels.

“The University of Minnesota has also been a big partner helping out with a good deal of research on improving the Minnesota River,” he said.