Letter to the Editor: Increased rainfall is the cause of many river problems

Farm Forum

Over 20 years ago, the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), of which I was a member, was formed by Governor Carlson and the Minnesota Legislature. We were asked to review data and give input and advice on how to make the Minnesota River fishable and swimmable. In trying to identify the problems, the CAC suggested that we look at highly erodible land, hence the name. We were told that these were too small of an area to worry about. We also suggested looking at stream bank and ravine erosion. Again, we were told this was insignificant, maybe up to 5 percent, even though everyone can see the large amount of erosion from the stream banks in this area. Years later, research showed that as much as 70 to 80 percent can be coming from these steep bluffs.

The one thing our CAC did agree on unanimously was on forming a river commission consisting of citizens, not another level of bureaucracy. For credibility, we felt it must it be composed of citizens. The Minnesota Legislature in its infinite wisdom created a joint powers board, all county commissioners, which as the Mankato Free Press correctly stated in their Sept. 9, 2014, editorial, that the joint powers board was hampered by in fighting, political differences and goals among county commissions on the board. This is what we feared would happen and continued to exist until they ran out of money.

The Mankato Free Press also stated that there were hundreds of millions of dollars spent in Minnesota. Many people have said it could be closer to a billion dollars. Most of which went to projects that did not address the major sources of the problem and with questionable results. I don’t want us to waste another 20 years and millions of dollars barking up the wrong tree again. Not only was it the wrong tree, we weren’t in the right forest. What we really need to do is use the sound science we have and find out what can be done and needs to be done.

Farmers have reduced phosphorus and sediment in the Minnesota River by tiling. Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element in our soils. This type of phosphorus usually does not have much impact on algae blooms and other water quality issues because it is held tightly by the soil particles. Tiling has converted very erosive surface run off to sub surface drainage, which does not allow as much sediment or phosphorus to leave the field. Farm drainage with tiling is not like flushing a toilet or draining a bathtub. It is more like installing rain gutters on your home. Rain gutters divert rainwater that falls on your roof anyways, thereby stopping erosion and protecting plants around your house and keeping water away from your basement. A small percentage of the total rainfall we receive ends up in farm tile lines. We need most of the rain we get to grow corn. Some years, like last year, we needed more rain than we actually got.

Professor Satish C. Gupta, University of Minnesota Dept. of Soil, Water, and Climate, published an article that states:

“When soils are saturated, every inch of rainfall produces an inch of runoff. In recent years, there has been at least 4 inches more precipitation in Southern Minnesota watersheds, which has led to increased river flows. Rainfall intensities are also higher now and are causing more flashiness in rivers. Sub surface tile drainage does not increase annual water flow or peak flow in rivers.“

Farming Practices are much the same in Blue Earth County and the surrounding counties. Yet of the 13 watersheds, the Le Sueur River watershed contributes approximately 24-30% of the total suspended solids (TSS) to the Minnesota River despite the fact that it comprises only about 7% of the watershed area of the Minnesota River Basin. Cumulatively the Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers contribute over half of the annual sediment load to the Minnesota River. This is due to their high banks and higher rainfall levels, neither of which can be controlled by farmers!

Many changes are proposed, such as severe limits on nitrogen and fertilizer, land use regulations, and restrict, change and stop tiling. Our Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture is already working on a nitrogen reduction strategy. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has developed a strategy for sediment reduction for the Minnesota River Basin and South Metro Mississippi River. The full report is available on sediment reduction strategy webpage:

Starting on page 12 and 13, it describes the modeling scenarios. According to their model, scenario 3, 20 percent of land needs to be in perennial vegetation. Although sediment reduction is a good goal, we must use good science in making changes. It appears to be flawed science and or modeling that would suggest that perennial vegetation would significantly reduce stream bank erosion. Their own model seems to prove that this would have limited success since 20 percent of the land in perennial vegetation, along with the other changes in scenario 3, would only result in a 10 percent reduction in sediment loading. Stream bank erosion has been naturally occurring since the glaciers left this area. As a matter a fact, erosion is what formed and placed most of our soils here in Minnesota in the first place.

We are going to need a strong pro agriculture voice to tell our story, rebut the misinformation and to address these problems correctly. A group of past leaders of farm organizations and farmers have been meeting to help fill this void. They are planning a winter meeting to present information that is positive about agriculture. Please contact your ag groups and voice your concerns. Maybe they can tell our story. If not, please contact me as it is imperative we address these issues sooner than later. As always, decisions are made by those that show up and speak up. It’s yours and your children’s future. One place to start is at the River Congress meeting that is scheduled in New Ulm at Turner Hall on Oct. 30, 2014, starting at 5 and meeting at 7. Please attend to make sure agriculture is represented. Thank you.