Project H2O: Threats to our lakes and rivers

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we pride ourselves on our water, but experts increasingly believe that water is in desperate need of our help.

"As a Minnesotan you want to be proud of your natural resources and your water resources, but in fact 40 percent of our lakes and rivers are out of compliance with federal standards," said Professor Deb Swackhamer.

Swackhamer teaches environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota and is the co-director of the Water Resource Center. She says getting people to pay attention to the threats facing our water ways can be difficult.

"People do take water for granted. I think it's one of our biggest challenges," she said.

THREAT #1: Invasive Species

One of several threats facing our water ways is invasive species. Zebra Mussels and Asian carp have slowly made their way to Minnesota, potentially causing millions, if not billions of dollars in damage.

"And the big problem is you have to prevent them before they happen. Or you spend all your money managing them. You never get rid of them," she said.

On its website, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports there is no evidence Asian Carp have established populations in the state, but individual Asian Carp have been caught.

The DNR reports the opposite for zebra mussels, which have been found throughout the state's lakes and rivers.

THREAT #2: Storm Water Runoff

Another big problem is storm water runoff, which ultimately finds its way into lakes and rivers.

"All of us that aren't mindful of what we're putting in our storm sewers are contributing to it," said Fresh Water Society President Gene Merriam.

The prevailing consensus used to be getting the rain water off the land and then pumping it somewhere else. That is changing.

"The focus is on spreading it out, slowing it down and soaking it into the ground," said Leslie Yetka with the Minnehaha Water Shed District.

Yetka says storm water runoff can pick up and carry out pollutants like leaves and other gunk from our lawns, including dog droppings and fertilizers. All of that stuff is then pushed to nearby water ways, which causes green and slimy lakes and rivers.

"Urban runoff is probably the No. 1 impact to our surface waters," she said.

Perhaps the most visually dramatic view of this is where the Minnesota River meets the Mississippi River. From the air the change in water color is apparent. The Minnesota is murkier than the Mississippi and experts believe it has a lot to do with runoff caused by farmers in the Minnesota Valley.

"Good farmers are doing good things and doing the right things, but they're not doing it fast enough," said Swackhamer.

THREAT #3: Water Consumption

In the land of 10,000 lakes there is another threat to our water system that we don't really think about; Ourselves. Our thirst for water is causing problems.

No more is that apparent than at White Bear Lake where the Ramsey County Beach has been closed for the last five years.

"White Bear Lake, the water levels have dropped significantly," said Hydrologist Perry Jones with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although the drought isn't helping, Jones and others believe White Bear Lake has become the poster child for what using too much water can do.

In his research, Jones and his team found communities in the Northeast Metro have more than doubled the amount of water they pulled from the aquifers underneath White Bear Lake since 1980. They discovered that consumption directly impacted the lake's levels.

"Particularly in the summer time, we saw declines in the water levels," said Jones.

White Bear Lake levels are now at record lows. Since 2003, the water has dropped about six feet, says Jones.

Other lakes and streams are having problems too, like Minnehaha Creek, which at times has been down to a trickle. Officials blame the drought for that but say conservation is still important no matter what the cause.

"We've got to get ahead of this before we pump beyond that point at which is sustainable," said Merriam.

It's a sobering thought for a land that is known for its abundance of lakes. So much of our way of life in Minnesota is tied to water, which is exactly why experts say protecting it has to be a top priority.

"They look at their own area, their own backyard and they say I'm fine. I get to go canoeing in my favorite stream and it doesn't look bad," said Swackhamer. "If we don't find a way to live sustainably and protect our water resources, ultimately it will creep."


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