Are Clean Water Efforts Worth the Work?

This 2009 WCD photo of the Plaisted Lake complex shows the interconnectedness of watershed, habitat and human systems

I wrote recently about the basin-wide effort underway in Minnesota and Wisconsin to reduce phosphorus pollution to the St. Croix River in order to improve the health of Lake St. Croix. Most Midwesterners are also familiar with an even larger endeavor underway to save Lake Pepin by reducing sediment and nutrient pollution to the Mississippi River. Given the enormous geographical area that drains to Lake St. Croix (7,760 square miles) and Lake Pepin (48,634 square miles), the number of governmental, citizen, non-profit and private entities involved in these projects at the national, state, county, city and watershed level, the millions of farmers, residents and private landowners that live within the basins, and of course, the cost of implementing thousands of conservation projects, a natural question arises. Are all of these clean water efforts really worth the work?

Lake St. Croix and Lake Pepin are two of the largest, most popular and most visited bodies of water in Minnesota and Wisconsin and many people would argue that protecting these lakes for wildlife habitat, human enjoyment, and economic vitality justifies a monumental effort. At the same time, it is easy to see why some communities and landowners, particularly those that are far away from the two lakes, might question spending time and money to protect a resource that they personally do not use. It is important to consider, therefore, the multiple benefits and impacts to larger hydrologic, ecologic and economic systems that most clean water projects have.

The St. Croix watershed is comprised of thousands of wetlands, ponds, streams, lakes and rivers that eventually connect to Lake St. Croix. Lake St. Croix, in turn, is part of the larger Mississippi River watershed, which passes through Lake Pepin, picks up water from 11 more states, and then empties eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. More than just water travels within the Mississippi and St. Croix basins, however. About 40% of all North American migrating waterfowl and shorebirds use the Mississippi River flyway, and the St. Croix River Valley is a major migration corridor for more than 320 species of birds, nearly 60 of which are Species of Greatest Conservation Need, meaning their populations are on the decline.

Furthermore, because the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers connect people, products and economies, the impacts of water pollution cause ripple effects in human systems as well. Excess phosphorus causes nuisance algal conditions in lakes within the St. Croix and Mississippi River watersheds, which lowers property values for shoreline landowners and limits fishing and other water related tourism opportunities. Excess sediment in the Mississippi River, which threatens to fill in Lake Pepin, also slows barge traffic and forces the Army Corps of Engineers and private distributors to spend millions of dollars on dredging. At the tail end of these systems lies the Gulf of Mexico, where a dead-zone the size of New Jersey exists due to the cumulative impact of nutrients and chemicals traveling downriver from the Mississippi and its tributaries. Sea life and coastal birds suffer greatly from this condition, but so too do the people and communities in Gulf States that have built their economies on fishing, shrimping and tourism.

Local clean water projects help to improve regional watersheds, habitat corridors and economies, but they also provide direct benefits to landowners and communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A 2011 shoreline stabilization project on Forest Lake offers an example of how this works. Last year, the Barchenger family worked with the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District to replace an eroding turf shoreline with a buffer of native plants that is 90 feet long and seven feet wide. The watershed district estimates that the buffer will keep 1.3 pounds of phosphorus, 2.2 pounds of nitrogen, and 63 pounds of total suspended solids out of the lake each year.

For the Barchengers, immediate benefits include a stable shoreline that increases their property value, less time spent mowing and dealing with erosion issues, and the improved aesthetics and nature watching opportunities that a buffer filled with native flowers, grasses and sedges provides. The native plants in the buffer provide food and shelter for birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Some of these insects also help to pollinate crops like apples and raspberries at nearby farms and orchards. Because Forest Lake flows to the St. Croix River via Comfort Lake and then the Sunrise River, this project will play a small part in helping to improve the habitat value and human usability of each of these water bodies as well.

There is no doubt that the scale of effort required to meet water quality goals for Lake St. Croix and Lake Pepin is daunting. When we consider the multiple small and large scale benefits of conservation projects beyond merely reducing phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment, however, this effort becomes more justifiable. The famous conservationist John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” and nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of watershed work.