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Town hall in Bemidji focuses on improving water quality

BEMIDJI, Minn.—Local and state officials discussed ways to improve water quality in Minnesota on Wednesday, Sept. 13, before turning the question to residents for more ideas.

The event was the seventh of 10 water quality town hall events being held across the state. The series of meetings that started in July are part of an initiative launched by Gov. Mark Dayton dubbed "25 by 25," meaning a goal of improving the state's water quality 25 percent by 2025.

Dayton, who was initially scheduled to appear at the event, was unable to attend. His water adviser, Anna Henderson, was on hand to address the crowd of about 250 people at Bemidji High School.

"We're here to listen and learn from all of you about the water quality improvements that you want to see and how we can increase the pace of progress," Henderson said.

Across much of Minnesota, the discussion has been about lakes and rivers impaired by excess phosphorus and nitrogen, too much road salt, invasive species, declining water tables due to overuse and the need for buffer strips to keep farm runoff out of rivers.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht kicked off the event by listing water quality as a key factor in the city's livelihood.

"As Minnesotans and as Bemidjians, we pride ourselves in our rich natural resources, our outdoor recreation opportunities and our clean water," Albrecht said. "In Bemidji, our economy depends on all three."

An example Albrecht gave was the city's urban forestry effort, which plants new trees every year and helps to fix broken trees. She said urban forestry can help make a difference in how much water goes into the storm drains, how much is used for tree growth and how much energy cooling trees have.

Albrecht also talked about maintaining safe drinking water for municipalities to the south.

"The first city on the Mississippi to have drinking water out of the river is St. Cloud," she said. "They want to know that the water we're putting into the water of the Mississippi is clean. I can assure you that our city has received many awards for our operation and we exceeded the levels of treatment and nutrients required by the state of Minnesota. We do better than that and it's something we work hard at doing."

Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews also spoke, focusing on stormwater management.

"As the first city on the Mississippi, we're proud to participate in any way we can with the '25 by 25' initiative," he said. "We know that as the first city, we set an example for other cities in the state. A very important component of what we do as a city is control and manage the runoff and our surface water discharges."

Mathews listed concerns the city has encountered when managing stormwater runoff. These range from concrete from trucks washed into ditches to other construction activity.

Toward the end of Mathews' presentation, a group of people opposed to Enbridge's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project interrupted the town hall, standing up and voicing that opposition before leaving.

State level effort

The '25 by 25' initiative began when Dayton's office received estimates that Minnesota's water was only expected to improve 6 to 8 percent by 2034. The governor then set goals to improve the state's water while also meeting existing commitments to reduce phosphorus by 12 percent by 2025 and nitrogen by 45 percent by 2040 in the Mississippi River.

Goals for the initiative include reducing phosphorus, sediment erosion and nitrogen. It is also hoped the initiative increases protection of land where drinking water recharges, increases private well testing for contaminants and increases acres of perennial crops.

The next town hall is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 19, in Minneapolis.