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Minnesota River shows signs of improving quality

MONTEVIDEO -- Drop a baited hook in the Minnesota River and your chances of catching a fish are better than they were 10 years ago.

Fish abundance and diversity appear to be on the increase in the river, while turbidity in the river has decreased over the past decade. The level of phosphorus -- the nutrient responsible for summer algae blooms -- is trending downward too.

"A decreasing trend is good news,'' said Kimberly Musser, assistant director of the Water and Resource Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Musser and Scott Kudelka, also with the Center, spoke about the 64-page report they co-authored, "Minnesota River Trends,'' to a packed room Thursday at the Chippewa County Montevideo Library.

The report offers an overview of how the river is faring since former Gov. Arne Carlson set the goal of making the river a place children can again enjoy for swimming, fishing, and other recreational uses by 2012.

We're not moving as fast as Carlson called for, but we're on the right road, according to Musser and Kudelka.

It's taken lots of hard work, money and changed attitudes to get us here. They cited farm conservation programs, investments to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and private septic systems and incentives to help landowners adopt best management practices as among the biggest agents for the improved water quality.

They also cautioned that there is still a ways to go. Nitrogen levels in the river remain a problem; there is no evidence that levels of the nutrient blamed for the Gulf of Mexico's "Dead Zone" is decreasing.

Nitrogen is not the only unwanted pollutant carried by the river in quantities way too large. The river represents only 20 percent of the flow to Lake Pepin, but it deposits 80 percent of the sediment that is filling the lake at an accelerating rate.

Also, populations of important indicator species like mussels show no improvement in the Minnesota River basin. There were once 41 types of mussels to be found in the waters of the Minnesota River and its tributaries. Today there are 23.

Musser cautions that it is difficult to make generalizations about a basin so large, and also pointed out that conditions can vary greatly across the basin's 15,000 square miles.

Kudelka offered this example: He and a group of volunteers sloshed through 1½ miles of shallow water in the Cottonwood River to find no more than seven mussels. He stood in place and gathered up 10 mussels in the Chippewa River.

Del Wehrspann of Montevideo needed only to take 15 minutes from his day to enjoy the antics of blue winged teal, wood ducks, mallards, and cackling pheasants in a prairie area near his home.

Wehrspann helped organize Clean Up the River Environment 18 years earlier in the library meeting room where Musser and Kudelka gave their presentation at the organization's request. Wehrspann said the improved fishing and wildlife habitat that he enjoys today would not have been possible only 10 years ago.

He credited a growing public appreciation for what he calls Minnesota's ''southern boundary waters'' with helping move things in the right direction. "I think we're making some progress,'' he said, adding: "We don't always realize it.''

The report can be found online on the Minnesota River Basin Data Center website:

Tom Cherveny

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

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