In the Spotlight

News & Features
Toxic Streams
Part 1: Beaver Creek Fish Kill
By Gretchen Lehmann
August 6, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4, RealAudio 3.0 28.8

In the last two years, the residents of the southwest Minnesota town of Olivia have seen two major fish kills in Beaver Creek. The small stream meanders through corn fields and pastures and eventually flows into the Minnesota River. There has been no official cause given for either fish kill, but state pollution control and natural resources officials say the incidents have directed their attention to contamination of the state's minor waterways.
Audio: Stream environs
Even on foot, it's easy to miss Beaver Creek. In places, the stream is little more than two inches deep and barely a foot wide - and with last month's heavy rain, much of the stream is hidden by tall grass and ripening corn stalks. Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Manager Lee Sundmark is one of a handful of people who know the creek well, but it's not under the circumstances he would like. In late June, Sundmark was sent to the creek to investigate a fish kill.
Sundmark: It was right here where we found dead fish that had already succumbed, and we also found some fish in slack waters that were gulping air - or I think the proper term is "---ing."
Sundmark won't give an official explanation for the kill, but he says one possibility is a spill which emptied close to 100,000 gallons of liquid hog manure into the west fork of the creek. Sundmark says whatever caused the damage spread through 18 miles of the creek and killed tens of thousands of fish.
Audio: Sundmark lists species lost
Every year in Minnesota there are roughly 2,000 reports of spills in the state's waterways. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency or MPCA, more than half of these are petroleum or fuel-related. Others involve leaks from factories or pesticide and fertilizer spills. One manure spill in a relatively small creek might not seem so devastating by comparison, but in only two years, Beaver Creek has been the site of two major fish kills. MPCA Public Information Officer Jason Abraham says this doesn't bode well for the fish or the water downstream.
Abraham: You're gonna see a phosphorus build up downstream. You're going to see more nitrates in the water downstream. Both of those can cause accelerated plant growth which eventually leads to algae blooms, which can eventually lead to another fish kill because it depletes the oxygen in a certain area.
Abraham says that the latest Beaver Creek spill could have been worse. Heavy rains diluted the liquid manure and kept it from causing damage downstream. And MPCA and DNR officials were able to get to the site right away which also helped contain any damage. But Lee Sundmark says that's not always the case, as in the 1995 fish kill on Beaver Creek. He says his office was called almost a week after the investigation started, and by that time, thousands of fish had already washed downstream. Sundmark says the delay was an unfortunate but understandable error.
Sundmark: There haven't been all that many major fish kills and so there's some confusion among the different agencies and things as far as responsibility. It's probably laid out somewhere, but there aren't all that many investigations or major fish kills that occur. It's not something that's commonly known.
Sundmark says this situation should soon change. Staff from the DNR, the MPCA and the Department of Agriculture met this spring to discuss ways to better respond to spills and fish kills. Sundmark says for a long time, crews from each of these agencies would investigate, but didn't always communicate what they found, or even know who else was working on a project. For now, communication seems to have improved. Sundmark and his crew were at Beaver Creek the day the latest fish kill was reported. DNR Aquatics Biologist Marilyn Danks says she sees more than just better communication coming out of the Beaver Creek spills. She says that Minnesota and its neighboring states have traditionally focused their energies on lakes - a major recreational and residential resource - but now they're starting to take a more comprehensive approach.
Danks: There's a great deal of interest these days in watershed management. People are concerned with 'where did that water come from?' and so they're not only looking at just the individual system, whether it be a lake or a stream, but they're interested in the whole watershed area. How is that surface water being managed? Because somewhere upstream, somewhere uphill, it's coming down.
A regional shift in philosophy may be just in time. Two weeks ago 115,000 fish were killed from a hog manure spill into Crane Creek in northeast Iowa. The creek feeds into the Turkey River near the Minnesota border. Back near Olivia, DNR officials estimate it will at least three years for Beaver Creek to recover from the most recent spill.
Audio: Flowing water sound

Toxic Streams Part 2: Hay Creek Fish Poisoning