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Poplar River improves, but state's impaired waters list grows

Oct 11, 2017 10:53PM ● Published by Editor

Sediments and mud at the mouth of the Poplar River in 2008. (St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District photo)

By John Myers from the Duluth News Tribune - Wednesday  Oct. 11, 2017

Another 618 waterways in Minnesota — both lakes and segments of streams — are being added to the state list of officially impaired waters for specific problems, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said Wednesday.

The PCA updates the list every two years and reports to the federal government on progress being made cleaning up the state's waterways — things like mercury contamination; excess phosphorus and nitrogen; fish habitat; and sedimentation.

The list now totals 5,101 impairments on 2,669 waterways, with some lakes and rivers listed as impaired for more than one reason.

But there was good news in Wednesday's report, namely that 25 rivers and lakes are cleaner and have been delisted for at least some of their impairments.

The Poplar River in Cook County, for example, has shed its impairment for sedimentation, or cloudy water, after years of efforts by government agencies, conservation groups and local landowners.

The river had been the victim of large sloughs of land eroding into the otherwise clear North Shore trout stream, especially in the area of the Lutsen ski hill.

But joint public-private efforts to reduce erosion and stabilize the streambanks have improved water clarity enough to remove the sedimentation impairment. The river still is listed as impaired for high mercury levels in fish, making them unsafe for all people to eat at all times, as are many of the state's waterways. Most of that mercury comes from other places and falls into rivers as rain and snow.

The PCA also is proposing to remove the PCB impairment for the Red River, along the North Dakota border, the first time PCBs have dropped enough in any waterway where they were present to remove the waterway from the list.

PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — were used as insulators in electrical equipment and other purposes. They were banned in 1979 because of their toxicity to human and environmental health. Though scientists cannot pinpoint the reasons for lower levels of PCBs in the Red River, it's likely because PCBs have declined in the environment over the past 38 years.

The PCA notes that it is finding more impaired waterways not necessarily because pollution is getting worse but because more are being thoroughly tested for the first time. The state is well into a 10-year plan to study all 80 major watersheds in the state, funded by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that directs a portion of the state's sales tax to conservation efforts.

While scientists find more impairments, the overall percentage of impaired waters in Minnesota remains at about 40 percent, many of them in the southern half of the state where urban and agricultural runoff is more intense. The other 60 percent of Minnesota waterways are in good condition but "need protective strategies to stay healthy," the PCA noted.

The PCA will hold public meetings in November on the draft 2018 impaired waters list, including the delistings and impairments proposed. You may attend in person or participate online. In Northeastern Minnesota, meetings are set for Nov. 9 at 9:30 a.m. at the Blandin Foundation, 100 North Pokegama Ave. in Grand Rapids; at Vermilion Community College, Fine Arts Building, Room 105, 1900 E. Camp St. in Ely; and at Oveson's Pelican Lake Resort, 4675 U.S. Highway 53 in Orr.

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