Waterfront Bulletin for January 2018: Funding rounds open

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Waterfront Bulletin

January 2018

Federal funding round opens, $1.4 million expected for 2018

The federal Clean Water Act Section 319 funding round is now open, with $1.4 million expected for grants to reduce water pollution. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) administers this program, which provides funding and technical assistance to groups and individuals who work with citizens to reduce non-point source pollution.

To be eligible, projects must be implemented in watersheds with a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the close of the application period, which is March 2 this year. Projects may include conservation practices that directly reduce non-point source pollution, and any associated education or development activities.

Visit  the MPCA website for more information and application instructions.

Polymet draft permits posted, public notice opens

The MPCA invites the public to make comments on the agency’s draft air quality permit, draft water quality permit and draft 401 certification for the Poly Met Mining, Inc., (PolyMet) NorthMet mining project. The draft permits and related support documents are on the MPCA’s NorthMet project webpage.

The public comment period is open today, Jan. 31 through March 16. Public comments can also be given at one of two public meetings scheduled in February. The MPCA and DNR will jointly hold public meetings on the draft permits at the following locations:

All comments received during the comment periods are considered when the MPCA decides whether to issue a permit or certification. Comments can and often do result in changes to the final permit.

Proposed NorthMet project

The proposed NorthMet Project, located near the cities of Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt in northeastern Minnesota, would create an open pit copper, nickel, cobalt and precious metals mine with stockpile areas. It would also refurbish a portion of the former LTV Steel Mining Company (LTVSMC) processing plant, construct a new hydrometallurgical facility, construct a tailings basin facility on the site of LTVSMC existing tailings facilities, and add to existing utility infrastructure and rail lines.

Before proceeding with the proposed NorthMet Mining Project, PolyMet must obtain permits from MPCA as well as other state, federal, and local permits and approvals. The steps in the permitting process are identified on the MPCA’s PolyMet webpage.

The draft air permit is a regulatory document that contains legally enforceable requirements. A permit identifies the units at each facility that generate air pollutants, details the conditions under which the facility must operate to comply with rules and regulations and, where applicable, sets limits on those emissions.

The draft water quality permit (or more formally, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System/State Disposal System or NPDES/SDS permit) establishes specific limits and requirements to protect Minnesota's surface and groundwater quality for a variety of uses, including drinking water, aquatic life and recreation.

The draft 401 certification is a water quality certification from the state that would become a part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Section 404 permit. In the 401 certification, the state reviews the proposed activity in order to determine if it will comply with applicable water quality standards, and identifies any conditions needed to ensure compliance. If the review finds that water quality will be protected, the 401 certification is issued and the certification and conditions become part of the 404 permit.

Submitting public comments

The MPCA will accept comments Jan. 31 - March 16. Starting today, comments can be submitted online via the state agency Polymet portal.

Comments can also be mailed to:

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

 PolyMet Draft Permit Comments

 520 Lafayette Road North

 St. Paul MN 55155-4194

Lottery funding round opens, $59 million anticipated

Environmental Trust Fund

The Legislative- Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources recently opened its funding round for projects of all sizes that aim to protect, conserve, preserve, and enhance Minnesota’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources. About $59 million is anticipated to be available for projects beginning July 1, 2019. Most projects funded are 2-3 years in duration. Applicants are encouraged to submit draft proposals by March 14 to receive staff feedback. Final proposals must be submitted online by April 11.

The funding derives from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is funded with Minnesota Lottery and investment proceeds. The commission is responsible for making funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature.

Ag BMP loans expanded with focus on Gulf dead zone

hypoxia gulf of mexico

Under an agreement between the Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture (MDA) and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Louisiana, eligibility for Agricultural Best Management Practices (AgBMP) loans in Minnesota will be expanded to include larger livestock operations.

With Minnesota’s formal recognition of the Barataria-Terrebonne management plan, eligibility will be expanded to include livestock operations holding National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits or those operations with more than 1,000 animal units.

The dead zone, an area with low to no oxygen that occurs in the Gulf of Mexico each summer off Louisiana and Texas, kills fish and other marine life that fail to move out of the affected waters. Last year, it spanned a record 8,776 square miles, about the size of New Jersey, researchers said.

Since its inception in 1995, the MDA AgBMP Loan Program has issued more than 13,000 low interest loans to Minnesota businesses and landowners financing over $220 million for projects addressing erosion, runoff, manure management, septic treatment, and drinking water problems.

Marsh River watershed: Most streams changed for farming, now changes needed for healthy waters

Marsh River: streambank erosion

The Marsh River watershed in northwest Minnesota is home to more than 36 fish species and 119 different macroinvertebrates, also known as aquatic insects.  This watershed drains a total of 362 square miles, spanning across Norman and Clay counties. The abundance and diversity of aquatic life in the Marsh is due in part to the river’s close connection to the Red River of the North. Together these streams function as an interconnected system to provide crucial habitat for many species.

The Marsh River watershed gets its name from the vast prairies and numerous shallow wetlands that once dominated its landscape. Early settlers took advantage of the soils left by ancient Lake Agassiz to grow crops and raise livestock. People made extensive alterations to the landscape and streams to enhance farming even further. About 67% of the streams within the watershed have been altered, including all tributaries on the Minnesota side. The Marsh River is the only remaining natural watercourse in the entire watershed.

As part of monitoring and assessment work done in the watershed, the MPCA studied six sections of the Marsh River. Four sections fully supported fish and aquatic insect life, while two did not. The main contributors to aquatic life impairments include:

  • Degraded habitat
  • Extended periods of insufficient flow
  • Excessive sediment clouding the water

The Marsh River is also impaired for swimming, meaning bacteria levels are too high at times to meet the standard designed to ensure safe contact with the water.

The diversity of life in the Marsh River system is worth protecting and restoring. However, there are some major impediments to restoring conditions that fully support aquatic life. Drainage ditch networks impede the natural fish runways from the Red River and threaten the ability of these fish to reach the Marsh River and its tributaries. Another barrier to fish passage is the high gradient culvert at the confluence of County Ditch 11 and the Marsh River.

Drainage of the tributaries within the Marsh River watershed is so effective that most of the tributaries go dry during the summer months.

Heavy silt deposits and poorly formed streams were also noted at each monitoring station.

Protecting and restoring habitat for greater diversity of aquatic life will depend on:

  • Establishing ways to control drainage while allowing streams to retain water
  • Removing barriers to fish passage
  • Creating buffers around all streams, rivers, and ditches using native perennial vegetation and trees

The loss of consistent flows in the watershed has been detrimental to habitat for fish and aquatic insects, but data suggest restoring flows has the potential for correcting this problem.

Excessive sedimentation exists in areas used by gravel-spawning fish and aquatic insects. Sediment clouds the water and makes it difficult for fish and other aquatic life to breathe, find food, and reproduce.

Although impairments have been identified throughout the watershed, the Marsh and its tributaries do in some places support extensive fish and aquatic insect populations. These places need protective strategies to maintain their conditions.

For more details of the river’s ability to support aquatic life and recreation, see the full Marsh River Watershed Monitoring and Assessment Report on the MPCA website.

Root River: Nearly 100% farmer participation yields 40+ conservation projects

Legacy Amendment

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) reports that their Root River Field to Stream Partnership with local farmers is reducing soil loss and protecting water quality. Nearly 100% of farmers in the Root River study area have participated in a field walkover to identify those areas most susceptible to sediment and nutrient loss. In just two years, more than 60%of those farmers have installed or fixed conservation practices in their fields to reduce these losses.

As a result of the field walkovers, a total of 40 new conservation projects have been completed with several more projects planned through 2019.

“This project exemplifies where local conservation partners like Soil and Water Conservation Districts excel,” said John Jaschke , BWSR executive director. “They know the landscape, understand the importance of agriculture to the local communities, and are able to make the connection between what the data is telling us, what is happening on the ground, and how to find solutions that work for everyone involved.”

The work is the result of strong relationships with area farmers and an intense surface and groundwater monitoring program. Seven years of baseline water quality data has allowed researchers to identify the critical timing of loss as well as the amount of sediment and nutrients leaving fields. Water quality measurements are taken at both the edge of agricultural fields and in nearby streams.

Monitoring will continue over the next several years to evaluate the effects of these conservation practices at both the field and small watershed scales.

Funding came from several sources, including the Legacy Amendment. For details, see the BWSR website.

Next month's Waterfront Bulletin: Meet a farm family who participated in the study.

Restored riffle benefits fish, paddlers in Minnesota River

Minnesota River riffle

Fish in the water, and paddlers on the water, will appreciate the re-establishment of a rock riffle in the Minnesota River just below the state Highway 212 bridge in Granite Falls.

With the earlier removal of the old Minnesota Falls dam downstream, the lower water level revealed rock-filled cribbing left over from a dam dating back to the late 1800s. Newly-exposed it created problems for paddlers and fish migration. In December the DNR completed for the most part restoration to a more natural state. (Photo at right: Looking east below the Highway. 212 bridge.)

"We anticipate completing some final survey work during warmer weather; however, we do not anticipate the need for any further construction activity on the riffle," says Chris Domeier, Ortonville Area Fisheries Manager in the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. "This is the best lake sturgeon spawning habitat in the Minnesota River. This site is good for fish, but more importantly even better for anglers and boaters."

The Willmar West Central Tribune reported: High water flows in the river had delayed the project for nearly two years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held water back at Lac qui Parle Lake to aid the work this season. A grant from the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund made the project possible, said Domeier, in large part because of the benefits it will provide for fish in the river.

Dr. Luther Aadland with the Minnesota DNR, who has built an international reputation for restoring fish habitat when dams are removed from riverine systems, oversaw the restoration. Its goals are to restore the spawning habitat needed by the river's rock stars: Lake sturgeon, paddlefish, walleye, and sauger among them.

Water Fee Advisory Committee plans monthly meetings

The MPCA is considering an update to its water fees and has created the Water Fee Advisory Committee to provide input to MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine on this important topic. An orientation meeting of the Water Fee Advisory Committee was held on Jan. 8 at the MPCA St. Paul office. The Advisory Committee plans to meet monthly through June 2018. Meetings will be held at the MPCA St. Paul office and are open to the public. Information about meeting dates, agendas, notes, and related materials will be available on the Water Quality Fee Rule webpage. The webpage also contains information about the water fees.

Through March 12: We Are Water display at Capitol

We Are Water MN

We Are Water MN, a traveling exhibit, is on display through March 12 in the State Capitol’s East Corridor, ground level. You can visit it any time the capitol is open to the public. The exhibit will stop at nine other locations in 2018 and 2019.

We Are Water MN explores the connection between the humanities and water through a hands-on exhibit. Visitors reflect on local stories and the meaning and experiences of water in Minnesota with a space to add their own stories.

Listen to stories from parents, children, fishers, famers, indigenous Minnesotans, immigrants to Minnesota, water professionals, and people who just love to be out on the lake.

We Are Water MN is led by the Minnesota Humanities Center, in partnership with the MPCA, Minnesota Historical Society, and Minnesota DNR, Health, and Agriculture.

  • March 19-June 18: Clay County Historical and Cultural Society, Moorhead.
  • Oct. 14-Nov. 26: University Institute for Advanced Study, Minneapolis.
  • Dec. 2-Jan. 14, 2019: Headwaters Science Center, Bemidji.
  • Jan. 20-March 4, 2019: Polk County SWCD, Crookston.
  • March 10-April 22, 2019: Fond du Lac Band, Cloquet.
  • April 28-June 16, 2019: Cedar River Watershed District, Austin.
  • June 20-July 28, 2019: Cannon River Watershed Partnership, Northfield.
  • Aug. 4-Sept. 16, 2019: Itasca Waters, Grand Rapids.
  • Sept. 22-Nov. 4, 2019: Mille Lacs Indian Museum, Onamia.

EPA approves TMDL for Miller Creek in Duluth area

The U.S. EPA recently approved the TMDL report for Miller Creek, a well-known trout stream flowing through Duluth and Hermantown in northeast Minnesota. Unfortunately, the creek has suffered from urban influences for many decades. As Miller Creek winds its way to the St. Louis River, fewer shade trees and plenty of stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots create warmer water that trout, other cold-water fish and bugs don’t appreciate. Shading the creek, restoring more natural flow paths, and preventing warm stormwater from entering it are possible strategies to address the temperature problem.

Feb. 8: Road Salt Symposium, award slated for MPCA watershed project manager

Experts from across the United States will present the latest research and innovations in road salt application and its effects on lakes, rivers, and streams to an expected 270 participants at the 17th Annual Road Salt Symposium in Plymouth, Minn. on Feb. 8. Freshwater Society, in coordination with Fortin Consulting, organizes the annual event to increase awareness of cutting-edge maintenance techniques for snow and ice management that minimize the effects road salt and other winter maintenance practices pose to freshwater resources.

Freshwater will also present Environmental Leadership Awards to several organizations and individuals for their efforts to change winter maintenance practices or educational programs to have less impact on our environment. Among them is Brooke Asleson, MPCA watershed project manager, for her exceptional leadership at the MPCA in researching and developing the Twin City Metropolitan Area Chloride Management Plan. Asleson engaged more than 100 stakeholders over seven years to inform the plan. She also worked with Fortin Consulting to develop a first-of-its-kind Winter Maintenance Assessment Tool to reduce salt use.

Upcoming water quality events: Nutrient conferences, ditching dilemma

MPCA to respond to court ruling rejecting proposed standard to protect wild rice

Wild rice

An administrative law judge recently rejected the MPCA’s proposed changes to the standard to protect wild rice. The existing rule (or standard) limits sulfate to 10 milligrams per liter in water used for the production of wild rice. However, the MPCA’s new research indicates that sulfide – converted from sulfate by bacteria -  in the sediment in which wild rice grows is the pollutant of concern. The proposed rules are designed to limit sulfide to 120 micrograms per liter. The proposed changes would have established a process to identify the level of sulfate that would be protective for each wild rice water body. The proposal would have also identified wild rice waters in Minnesota.

The MPCA is now evaluating all available options following the ruling.

“While we are disappointed with the ALJ disapprovals in the report, we are pleased that the ALJ agreed the proposed revisions were based on sound scientific evidence,” the agency said in a statement issued to media.

“At the Legislature’s direction, the MPCA worked diligently for nearly seven years to craft a modern, workable rule that would protect wild rice from the impacts of sulfate pollution. We strongly believe that those efforts delivered a solution that would effectively protect this important resource, while providing a workable standard for businesses and industries that would be impacted by these regulations.

“Significant input, including 4,500 public comments received through a 93-day open public comment period and six public hearings, informed numerous appropriate adjustments to the proposed rule revision. 

“In light of the ALJ report, MPCA now intends to proceed with the rule revision process, as prescribed by Minnesota state law. We will first submit a comprehensive written response to the ALJ report. The Chief ALJ will then review our response and determine if the modified proposal is acceptable. We believe this exchange can lead all parties to a workable solution, and we remain strongly committed to achieving that ideal outcome.

“The Minnesota Legislature shares a keen interest in this matter and we look forward to working with legislators and the public as we continue to refine an improved rule proposal.”

Related media coverage:

In the news and online: Duluth slips closer to restoration, Wisconsin restricts manure use