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New report finds more contamination along Red River due to increased precipitation

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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources researchers, shown here pulling in catfish, conduct a fish survey on the Red River in 2015. A new report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that the number of fish species progressively declines downstream, as water quality deteriorates from pollutants. Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Higher flows caused by increased precipitation have elevated runoff of pollutants contaminating the Red River, according to a report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The agency, in what officials call the first comprehensive look at the Red River’s entire 400-mile course as it flows through the United States, found that flooding has increased the river’s sediment load, bacteria and nutrients that feed algal blooms.

The deterioration in water quality — and the toll on aquatic species — becomes progressively more evident downstream, especially in Canada, Jim Ziegler, the MPCA’s regional manager in Detroit Lakes, said on Tuesday, Feb. 26, when the report was released.

“They’re having significant problems with their water quality in Lake Winnipeg,” which is fed by the Red River, Ziegler said. “Aquatic life is OK at the southern end, but by the time we get to Canada, we’ve lost 40 percent of the fish species.”

Still, fish generally are doing fairly well along the Red, the report concluded. “But the fishery would be more diverse and healthy if people took action to improve conditions for fish, especially in the tributaries.”

Bacteria levels sometimes are too high in some reaches of the Red River, including the Fargo reach from the Wild Rice River to the Buffalo River. Contamination from mercury and PCBs have prompted advisories for people to limit fish consumption.

Strategies including water storage will help to decrease contamination runoff, Ziegler said.

“The high flows are really hard on habitat,” he said, adding that “we need to continue to look at fertilizer management,” and more farmers should become involved in that effort.

Fertilizer and manure from livestock as well as leaky septic tanks or failing sewage disposal systems are sources of phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients that cause algae blooms, including toxic algae that poses a risk to human and animal health, the MPCA report said.

Nitrogen is a rising health concern in areas including Kragnes, Hendrum and Robbin, according to the MPCA. Many communities draw drinking water from the Red River.

“Removing nitrogen is expensive,” the report said. “It’s easier and cheaper to prevent nitrogen contamination through fertilizer management and better drainage practices.”

Further study is needed to determine the causes of nutrient pollution, Ziegler said.

Water storage projects are in development both in Minnesota and North Dakota. So far, there are about 20 projects, with “more on the books.”

Meanwhile, officials in the U.S. and Canada are discussing possible phosphorus contamination targets, with an eye toward reducing levels to improve water quality, he said.

“I would suggest that’s years in the making yet,” Ziegler added. “If we can limit phosphorus, we can limit the amount of algae that grows.”

Collaboration to take steps to increase water quality also is going on between Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba as well as the federal governments of both countries and the Red River Basin Commission.

The efforts, including increased water retention and better fertilizer management, likely will take 10 or 15 years to show results, said Ted Preister, the Red River Basin Commission’s executive director.

“If we could do it real quick, it would already have been done,” he said. “There’s a lot of complexity to the problem.”

Still, Preister said, progress is being made. For example, he said, hundreds of old septic systems have been replaced in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Large sub-basin water retention projects are in the works, including a project capable of storing 20,000 acre-feet in the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District and a project involving integration of tile drainage systems in a 26-square-mile area by the Cass County Joint Watershed District, Preister said.