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MPCA looking at voluntary strategy to reduce excess nutrients in water

Minnesota is among 12 Midwest states that are developing strategies to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus they send to the Gulf of Mexico. “We’ve developed a strategy that says we’re doing to do our fair share,’’ Wayne Anderson, MPCA, told about 140 people attending a public meeting in Willmar on Tuesday. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

WILLMAR — If the surface area of all the streams and lakes within Minnesota were added together, it would create a sheet of water roughly equal in size to the “dead zone’’ found today in the Gulf of Mexico.

Reducing the amount of nutrients that Minnesota sends to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River is a major focus of a draft nutrient management strategy that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is outlining at meetings across the state.

“It is a conversation starter,’’ said MPCA staff member Wayne Anderson of the draft plan.

Anderson addressed an estimated 140 people who came to learn about the plan at an open house meeting Tuesday in Willmar. A large share of the local audience was made up of students from agriculture programs at Ridgewater College.

Minnesota will rely entirely on voluntary measures, with no new regulations, to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus it sends to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the draft plan.

The state has set goals for a 20 percent reduction in nitrogen and 35 percent reduction in phosphorus by 2025, according to the plan.

Minnesota and other Corn Belt states are considered the major contributors of the nitrogen and phosphorus that annually create the 15,000-square-mile area of the Gulf that is devoid of aquatic life.

If Minnesota and 11 other states can reduce their nutrient flows according to the goals they are setting, the hypoxia or dead zone could be reduced by about 5,000 square miles in 2025, according to Anderson.

Comments from those attending the Willmar meeting varied, but a number of people urged that the state not place the entire burden on agriculture.

The plan puts most of its attention in two areas: wastewater treatment discharges from municipalities and agriculture.

The state is already requiring that municipal wastewater systems remove more phosphorus. It will be focusing on treatments to reduce nitrogen in the years ahead, according to Anderson.

The plan’s approach to agriculture focuses on encouraging more efficient use of fertilizers, and more treatment for water collected in drainage systems. The goal is to see more water filtered through wetlands or in purposely constructed “bio-reactors’’ attached to tile systems.

The state will also encourage farmers to plant more cover crops. “We need to get more roots into the landscape,’’ said Anderson.

Agriculture in Minnesota has reduced its nitrogen contribution to the state’s waters by about 2 percent in recent years, according to Anderson. That has been offset by about a 2 increase in the contribution from municipal sources due to rising urban populations.

The state’s reduction goals fall short of what the Environmental Protection Agency has established for the long-term elimination of the dead zone. Anderson said the state strategy is to move forward with hopes that research will lead to solutions in the years ahead.

Minnesota wants to address the issue of hypoxia with its own plan before federal mandates or a court dictates what it must do, according to Anderson. He also noted that the quality of our own surface waters is very much at stake as well.

The draft plan is available for review on the MPCA’s website, and comments on it are being accepted through Dec. 18. To view:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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