What does this mean for wildlife, and recreationalists?
Hearing that the pristine St. Croix River has been added to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) list of impaired waters has raised concerns from residents across the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. But, how tragic is this announcement? Miranda Nichols, coordinator of the impaired waters list for the MPCA and Julie Galonska, Superintendent for the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, agree that those concerns are important, but that disaster hasn’t struck the river.
“It’s a new impairment, but it’s not new pollution,” says Nichols. “We knew the river had phosphorous problems back in 2008. We didn’t have enough data or water quality standards at that time. We’ve now had those standards developed, and have been using them since about 2015, but this year is the first year we actually assessed the St. Croix for river nutrients, so it’s important to know that it wasn’t something in the last two years that just degraded the system.”
Despite knowing about levels of phosphorous that exceed standards by the MPCA since 2008, Nichols indicates that those levels are falling at a consistent rate. “It’s interesting that the phosphorus levels in the St. Croix have been declining over the last 20 years,” she said. “But what does that mean? It means that these water bodies are still impaired. They’re still not meeting our standards and goals for what the St. Croix River should look like.”
So, where is this phosphorus coming from, and why does it matter for the St. Croix River? “The phosphorus is coming off the land,” says Nichols. “It’s washing off from lawns, streets, pastures, fields, eroding off of stream banks and it’s ending up in the water. The problem when it hits the St. Croix is that it starts to produce algae.”
Algae is the commonly green, milky substance that forms on lakes and rivers that often deter people from swimming, or fishing. While some algae can be harmful, the algae in the St. Croix River is harmless.
“While this definitely is a reason to be concerned, this is not an indication that things are getting worse,” says Galonska. “Water quality has actually improved in the St. Croix over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s an impairment for aquatic life, but not for recreation and not for fish consumption. So, people who have been recreating on the river can continue to do so. “
Though the water quality has steadily improved, and recreational users can continue to use the river as normal, the St. Croix River has yet to reach the standards set by the MPCA to be excluded from the impaired waters list, and there is plenty to be done to reach those standards.
“From a public standpoint, I think that what people should be aware of is that we all need to think about what we can do to protect water quality,” says Galonska. “It really is a concerted effort across many different sectors. Government groups from the federal level, down to the local level, non-profits, and private citizens all need to do our part to collaborate and make improvements in the St. Croix River.”
“The average citizen can think about what they’re doing with their leaves and their grass clippings,” says Nichols. “Anything that runs down the street, runs down the gutter and all of that stuff contains the phosphorus causing the problem. There are funds and programs available for farmers to keep water and soil from running into the river. We can work with wastewater treatment plants to reduce phosphorus levels entering the river. Now that this impairment is in place, it’s visible to us and the public, so we can continue to improve and do more for the St. Croix.”
Public concern of the St. Croix River’s status are not unwarranted after the release of the impaired waters list, but those concerns should be met with the relief that things are already improving for the scenic waterway. As long as improvements continue, Galonska and Nichols are confident that the St. Croix will remain a pristine river for Wisconsin and Minnesota communities.
“It’s not easy work,” Galonska says. “It takes a long time, and it takes a lot of people. But, if we keep making steady progress like we’ve been doing, we should be in a better place the next time MPCA evaluates the St. Croix River.