Driftless region’s beauty masks fish kills, ‘public health issue’

By Denise Lana,

Rush Creek near Lewiston, Minn., where 2,500 fish were killed in July, 2022, by runoff during a heavy rain of manure and farm chemicals. (submitted)

Spurred by information presented at the Lanesboro, Minn., water forum, this is the third in a multi-article series  exploring the issue, with further detail from the presenters, and an introduction to the principles of what impacts the watersheds of the region. Further articles in the series will run in the Driftless Journal over the next few weeks. 

Throughout southeast Minnesota and surrounding area, Monta Hayner’s name is synonymous with fly fishing. Her brother, Melvin, taught Hayner how to fly fish when they were growing up in Michigan, and he now owns Driftless Fly Fishing Company in Preston, Minn. 

As an adult, Hayner found herself in Minnesota after marrying a native. She became engrossed with Minnesota nature — the cycles of the streams, watched birds feed on insects and fish and learned when certain flowers bloomed. 

Hayner soon began to understand how nature depends on clean water. As her experiences expanded, Hayner became a mentor for women fly fishers and began educating others on the importance of clean water.

“The more people who understand and enjoy clean streams, the more power we have to keep them clean,” Hayner expressed at the recent water quality forum in Fillmore County.

As a member of Trout Unlimited, Hayner became focused on the effects of nitrates in stream water. Because nitrates are usually paired with pesticides when applied to crops, they are usually found together in streams, Hayner explained.

Outdoor recreation economy

According to Hayner, outdoor recreation makes up 2.4 percent of the state’s gross product, and in the Driftless region, a survey performed in 2016 showed that recreational fishermen generated more than 6,500 jobs and $1.6 billion for the region. 

Essentially, water quality’s not only imperative to residents and drinking water but also is essential to a healthy outdoor recreation economy. 

Hayner observed her brother’s fly fishing business, explaining step by step how it contributes to the financial health of Preston. Driftless Fly Fishing Company opened 10 years ago after Hayner’s brother saw how much the hobby was expanding throughout the area. Beginner fly fishing classes are offered, and in 2022, there were more than 200 participants in the class. Another 200 participants came to participate in the guided fly fishing tours. 

Her brother estimated each participant spent $100-$150 dollars in the community beyond purchases at his fly fishing shop – restaurants, gas, lodging, shopping, etc. 

“That’s $40,000 to $60,000 spent in the local economy,” Hayner emphasized. 

Along with Driftless Fly Fishing Company, there are many other fly fishing shops in the area, and there are many independent fly fishermen who are contributing to their local economies by bringing people to the Driftless Region.  

“Other recreational activities related to our streams attract people and families to the area,” said Hayner. “I’ve been fishing this area for 25 years, and I’ve seen growth in all the outdoor activities, especially camping — campgrounds have expanded, and new ones have developed along the streams.”  

With more people coming to the area to camp, more restaurants and businesses in the area are more profitable and sustainable. 

The bigger problem

The Driftless Region is gaining attention through films and magazines, all showing picturesque bluffs and rivers and streams. But behind the postcard imagery, issues with water quality are increasing exponentially, due to pollutants and fish kills. 

“We have major fish kills every year or two,” Hayner lamented. “The news of fish kills travels fast through the fly fishing community, and fish kills give anglers second thoughts about traveling to our region.”  

Each fish kill occurred after a heavy rain, which is a normal event. As she explained, it’s what is put on the land that washes into the water that is the problem. “Fish kills are an acute event indicative of a bigger problem with our ground water.”  

Land/water breakdown

Paul Wotzka, hydrologist, farmer and co-founder of the Minnesota Well Owners Organization, has spent more than 30 years studying and consulting on watershed management. Focusing on water quality issues in Southeast Minnesota, Wotzka emphasized to be very wary of how crops are treated.  

“Everything we do on the land, ends up in the water, one way or another!” He professed. “99.9% of us get our drinking water from groundwater, we have a well, it’s down in the ground, we pump it out. Everything we do on the land affects the water, both quality and quantity. The soil here is very thin, and a very porous landscape, things we can’t control, but what we can control is land and management. What we grow, where we grow.”  

“In 1980, we started doubling up the number of soybeans,” Wotzka explained. “For every acre of soybeans, we took out an acre of alfalfa or we took out an acre of oats. What happens when you do that transition?”  

Because corn and soybeans are a heavy nitrate crops, he continued, “You convert one acre of alfalfa to corn and soybeans, and you increase your nitrate loss by a factor of 30.”  

As he explained, forests contribute 0-5 pounds of nitrates per acre per year, but the row crops in southeastern Minnesotan contribute between 20 and 37 pounds of nitrogen per acre, per year.  

Studying water in Fillmore County, Minnesota, Wotzka discovered that municipal water quality is actually pretty good. Most of the municipalities have deep wells and don’t have pollutants that originate on the surface of the wells. Only Chatfield, Minn., was noted to have some issues with nitrates, with a current report of 4.4 ppm.  Stream water quality in Fillmore County showed recurring fish kills due to high pesticide, sediment, metals, ammonia and bio-chemical oxygen demand concentrations.

But when it came to private well quality, Wotzka discovered that nearly 17 percent of 1,477 wells tested in Fillmore County are above the 10 ppm nitrate standard. 

Unfortunately, in Minnesota, private well owners are on their own when it comes to testing their wells. Each owner is personally responsible for the safety of his or her drinking water, and they have to be vigilant regarding water testing.  

Carly Griffith, who is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Wisconsin and serves as the water program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, summed up the numerous Driftless Region’s water issues, saying, “There is no silver bullet for this problem, it’s going to take silver buckshot. This goes beyond a water quality issue, it’s a public health issue.”  

According to Griffith, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this summer that it will undertake a human health assessment of nitrites and nitrates, recognizing that the current standard set of 10 ppm for nitrates is an antiquated standard based mainly on blue baby syndrome. With numerous studies showing health issues spanning from exposure to nitrates at much lower levels, the EPA will widen its scope regarding the research on increase for cancers and effects on the reproductive system.  

She stressed, “The government has a responsibility to protect us and protect the health of our children and our families. There are agricultural solutions – we need to fight for the funding to help those farmers adopt those practices that we know actually clean our water and keep us safe.”  

Griffith summarized that water quality is everyone’s responsibility. “This is our shared resource, it’s for our future, it’s up to us to protect it.” 

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Jim Salkas
5 months ago

If its not possible to determine the source of the pollutant, it will be difficult to affect change. Much improved monitoring is key.