With plentiful water in most areas, district's eastern regions try to balance preservation and growth

David Fettig | Editor

Published April 1, 1992  | April 1992 issue

Minnesota has about 15,000 lakes and 90,000 miles of rivers and streams; Wisconsin also has about 15,000 lakes and ground water that is equal to one-third the amount of water in Lake Superior; and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in addition to being virtually surrounded by Great Lakes water, has 4,300 lakes within its interior. Those numbers would likely make the mouths water of many people in the Ninth District's western states.

Although water quantity isn't an issue for much of the district's eastern regions, issues surrounding water quality bring their own set of problems. Mainly, water problems in the eastern portion of the Ninth District involve the use and preservation of existing water supplies.

The Mississippi River: How clean is clean enough?

The Mississippi River, always in the limelight of Minnesota's water issues, is receiving even more focus this year because of a $9 million grant program sponsored by the McKnight Foundation. The competitive grant program has a goal of trying to maintain and restore a healthy environment in the Mississippi River basin—all 2,358 miles of it, from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

A report commissioned by McKnight and prepared by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, reveals the following for the Mississippi River basin's 21 states and Minnesota:

  • Over 21 billion pounds of chemical fertilizer was used in the 21 basin states in 1990, including 1,922 million pounds in Minnesota.
  • Over 283 million pounds of pesticides were put on major crops in 1990, 26 million in Minnesota.
  • 66 million acres of wetlands have been lost since the 1700s, 6 million in Minnesota; wetlands are a protective buffer for the river because they drain and filter incoming water.
  • The number of reported spills (oil, chemical and other pollutants) has increased from an average of 116 from 1982 to 1986, to 246 from 1987 to 1991; only 2 percent of those spills were classified as major (more than 1,000 gallons). In Minnesota, there were an average of 17 spills per year from 1982 to 1991, but less than one per year was major.

Though those statistics may seem grim, William Craig of CURA, one of the authors of the report, says it's important to remember that not all fertilizers and pesticides find their way to the Mississippi River and other water sources; most end up where they are intended—on crops.

Also, the Mississippi River is currently cleaner than it has ever been in recent times, Craig says. Overall, cities are contributing less pollution to the river than they have in past years and, while it still is the major polluter of the Mississippi, the agricultural industry is improving. The one area of major concern is the increased number of spills, he says.

Don't look to the navigation industry to find a culprit for the rise in spills, according to Bill Newstrand, director of the ports and waterways section for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. A recent study by the St. Paul District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows that railroads put more "undesirables" into the river than boats, he says. Also, most big spills involve industrial accidents, he says. "Shipping is a very environmentally friendly transportation mode," Newstrand says.

And he's got the numbers to vouch for his claim. Another federal study determined the impact on the environment of a shift in transportation modes from shipping to rail and truck. Using the equivalent of four navigational shipments, equal to about 1 million tons of cargo, a shift to trucks would mean an increase in fuel consumption of 826 percent over what the barges would consume, an increase of 709 percent in exhaust, an increase of 5,967 percent in probable accidents and an increase of 2,746 used tires each year. For the rail industry, a switch to trains would mean increased fuel consumption of 331 percent, increased exhaust of 470 percent and an increased probability of accidents of 290 percent.

But aside from its environmental friendliness, Newstrand says commercial shipping has also been economically friendly to Minnesota. A study done for the Metropolitan Council shows that commercial river navigation has a statewide annual impact of $561 million and 5,500 jobs. (While data exist to quantify the economic impact of commercial navigation on the Mississippi, the same is not true for recreational activities, like boating, fishing and camping. The Corps of Engineers is currently preparing a study to measure the economic impact of the recreation industry along the river; the report is due later this year.)

"Additional economic benefits accrue to the state through water transportation's competitive influence on other transportation systems," Newstrand says, arguing that commercial shipping helps keep the general cost of transportation down. In 1989, for example, when water levels were low and shipping was limited, rail rates increased as much as 13 cents a bushel for agricultural products, he says. "That cost came right out of the farmer's pocket."

Sixty percent of the state's grain that is raised for export is shipped via the Mississippi River, according to Newstrand. In the state's three river ports—Minneapolis/St. Paul, Winona and Red Wing—58 terminals handle up to 21 million tons of cargo per year, including grain, fertilizer, petroleum, coal and aggregate. Predicted growth rates for commercial shipping on the river are between 2 and 3 percent annually for the next 10 years, Newstrand says.

In Wisconsin, waste matter may become ildlife habitat

It is still in the early planning stages, but if a proposal by the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) is accepted by regulatory authorities, dredged material from the Duluth/Superior Harbor may be turned into islands that will serve as habitat for fish and wildlife. At the same time, the plan would help turn the dredge material from a growing supply of unused waste to a valuable product. The study by the NRPC, an economic development district of northwest Wisconsin and based in Spooner, focuses on one channel and one existing man-made island of the Duluth/Superior harbor.

Every year about 150,000 yards of material is dredged out of the harbor to maintain shipping lanes, and since the passage of a 1975 Wisconsin law, the material is stored in contained disposal sites because of the possible existence of harmful pollutants. But those disposal sites are filling fast and by next year the last available site will be full, according to Tony Wilhelm, NRPC's transportation planner and the project manager of the harbor plan.

At the same time, construction and expansion of harbor facilities over the years has reduced available fish habitat, as well as wetlands for other wildlife and plants. Such man-made islands have been recently constructed in the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn., but dredged or otherwise contaminated materials were not used.

Specifically, the harbor plan is meant to create 50 to 100 acres of aquatic wetlands to support approximately 50 species of juvenile fish; provide habitat for the piping glover, an endangered specie; provide a nesting area for terns and other water birds; and provide a temporary resting and feeding area for migratory waterfowl.

The key to NRPC's plan will be to get approval for the use of dredged material for wildlife purposes. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota have laws requiring that dredged material be confined on land. Barring outright approval for the use of the material, at least two methods exist for protected use of such fill.

The first method—largely untested in America but used in Europe—would contain the material within protective coverings known as geofabrics. This protected material would form the bulk of the man-made island, which would then be topped by clean fill. The second method involves capping the dredged material with some type of material that—by its natural or chemical nature—seals the dredged material and becomes a safe barrier for the clean fill.

"This is not a foregone conclusion," says Wilhelm, referring to the approval process the plan must pass. But he hopes the inherent logic of the plan—"turning something wasted into something good"—will eventually win out.

Are pollution standards growth prohibitive?

Residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan don't need to be reminded of the importance of the Great Lakes to their livelihood. The waters of the lakes shape and enhance the U.P., provide recreation, help drive tourism and spark economic development along coastal cities.

But residents also know that two vital industries to the U.P.'s economy, mining and paper milling, are extremely sensitive to any changes in pollution control standards for the lakes. And it's those two classic combatants—industry and environment—that have joined battle over recently proposed pollution guidelines by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA plan, known as the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative, would set first-ever guidelines for all eight Great Lake states. If the plan, under study since 1989 and to be published this summer, is ultimately mandated by the EPA, it would set guidelines on substances in discharges from municipal and industrial waste water systems. These guidelines would apply to the Great Lakes and all tributaries. If these guidelines were unmet within two years, the EPA would then intervene and set mandatory standards.

The proposed guidelines are being hailed by environmental groups and others concerned about Great Lakes water quality as the only effective way to control pollution on the lakes. Because the lakes are contiguous, discharges from a high-pollution area can contaminate other areas that are more diligent in their pollution-control efforts. The EPA guidelines are crucial to the future viability of the lakes as a source of recreation, environmental habitat and domestic consumption, according to the EPA proponents.

But Operation Action U.P., a group of U.P. residents supportive of business concerns, has come out in opposition to the EPA plan, arguing that it will adversely impact the U.P.'s economy. Expansion in the paper mill industry will be virtually halted, according to Richard Dunnebacke of Operation Action, and growth in mining will be severely limited.

Some cities are also concerned about the guidelines. A study by Lima, Ohio, projects that compliance with the plan would cost the city $134 million. Another study puts the cost to all Great Lakes municipalities at $2.7 billion.