Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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Blue Earth River heavily polluted
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The Blue Earth River near Amboy, Minn. contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
Some of Minnesota's most polluted water is found in the rivers of southern Minnesota. Farm runoff and outdated septic systems send a hazardous mix of sediment, chemicals and bacteria into the streams. The Blue Earth River is one of the worst. On most days it may be unhealthy to swim there. There's no single villain, the pollution comes from multiple sources. Efforts to clean up the river are being made, but money is tight. A canoe trip on the Blue Earth gives an up-close look.

Amboy, Minn. — The Blue Earth River is running high but dropping on this late spring day. Runoff from heavy rains have chewed into the soft banks, dumping sediment and toppling trees into the river. Scott Matteson paddles in the front of the canoe, he works at the Water Resources Center at Minnesota State University Mankato.

He says there's so much soil in the river, you can only see a little way into the water. An object disappears after six inches or so. He says the sediment is a tip-off that lots of bad things are washing into the Blue Earth River.

"Bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, pesticides," says Matteson.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Hydrologist Lee Ganske continues the list from the back of the canoe.

"Mercury, PCB's. In the Blue Earth River we see some of the highest sediment concentrations, some of the highest phosphorus concentrations, nitrates concentrations, that we see anywhere in the state," says Ganske.

Ganske says another problem is fecal coliform , a bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and animals. It's not usually harmful itself but it's presence means there's fecal material in the river, which may contain disease producing bacteria.

Scott Matteson has brought along some containers to test for bacteria. The paddlers pause a moment to let him catch water in a glass bottle.

Matteson says there's been extensive testing of the Blue Earth River. He says nearly every sample shows fecal coliform levels higher than the state standard of 200 organisms per 100 milliliters of water.

At that level it's risky to swim in the water. It's assumed livestock produce most of the bacteria, since hogs and other animals far outnumber people in the Blue Earth basin.

The biggest problem seems to be livestock manure spread on fields as fertilizer. Heavy rains can easily wash some of that into the Blue Earth and its tributaries.

Humans also contribute. It's estimated there are about 14,000 home septic systems in the Blue Earth River basin. About 40 percent don't meet state standards, sending polluted water into nearby streams. Hydrologist Lee Ganske says so much waste is entering the Blue Earth that the river poses a health risk for swimmers, though it's a small one.

"Of a thousand people ingesting water eight would become ill with some sort of gastrointestinal illness. And that assumes ingestion, so not all swimmers are going to ingest water," says Ganske.

Much of the human waste in the river comes from 29 small communities, home to 3000 people, with outdated sewer systems. These communities send sewage water into ditches, creeks and eventually the Blue Earth River. The town of Ormsby, population 151, is one of the towns. Mayor Nick Hager says town officials are studying the issue.

"It's definitely something that needs to be taken care of and we want to get it taken care of," says Hager.

He says the biggest obstacle to fixing the towns sewage system is money. Right now every house has a septic tank. Water flows from each to a central city tank. After settling, the partially cleaned water is discharged into a stream which enters the Watonwan River, which eventually joins the Blue Earth. Hager says the town can't afford to build a new sewer system by itself. He says Ormsby residents can barely pay for what they have now.

"We had a city water break that ate up half of my town budget, just to fix the water line that was busted," says Hager.

A new sewer system could cost each household in town as much as $20,000. Ormsby officials are working with government sources to try and find the money needed to fix the problem. It's hoped federal money will cover most of the cost with Ormsby supplying the rest. Hager says the issue is a big deal in a small town. Many people are retired, living on social security. Hager says the cost of building and maintaining a sewer system will stress household budgets.

"This is my hometown and I love this town. Every fiber of my body tells me how much I love this town and I don't want to ever see anything happen to it," says Hager. "And do I think that this could close the town down? No, but it could make it a lot smaller than what it is."

Hager worries elderly residents may decide an apartment or assisted living looks better than staying in Ormsby. But at the same time he says there's no doubt the town will build a new sewage system.

Along with other towns Ormsby is feeling pressure from state and federal water regulators to clean up its wastewater. The problem Ormsby faces illustrates the difficulties involved in cleaning up an entire river. Ormsby is one town, there are dozens other with waste water problems, then thousands of individual homes.

Federal, state, and local governments are working on funding, but it's slow going. Volunteer groups also pitch in. Some are hauling junk out of rivers and streams. Others work to educate landowners and residents of the Blue Earth basin on what they can do to clean up the water. Hydrologist Lee Ganske thinks water quality is improving, though slowly.

"I often see these issues as two or three steps forward and one or two steps back," says Ganske. "Things are constantly changing in the Blue Earth River watershed and some of those changes are positive for water quality, some are not so positive."

As if to demonstrate his point, Ganske spots a discarded water heater perched at river's edge. He says 50 years ago many people threw their household garbage down the banks of the rivers and streams making up the Blue Earth River basin. That sort of mass dumping was banned decades ago. Junk from the sites still washes into streams. And some people still use the river and its tributaries as a dumping ground, though they face heavy fines if they're caught.

A week after the canoe trip down the Blue Earth River Scott Matteson called with the results of the water samples he took. They were tested for fecal coliform bacteria. Both exceeded the state standard.

"After collecting the samples we sent them to Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratory in New Ulm," says Matteson. "And the first sample we collected on the Blue Earth River had a concentration of 260 colony forming units per 100 milliliters. And the second sample we collected about an hour and a half later had a concentration of 600."

Matteson says the results are about what he expected for this time of year. Coliform levels rise as the water warms. Matteson says its a yearly cycle which probably won't end anytime soon.

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