Lucas Melby is from Mankato, Minnesota and is currently studying political science at Hamline University. His favorite things to do outdoors include camping with his family, biking on the trails around Mankato, and, of course, going to the many lakes of Minnesota.
My mother’s side of the family has long owned a cabin on Lake Ballantyne, which is just outside the town of Madison Lake (lots of lakes in Minnesota!). As a child, my family and I would go out there constantly during the summer, playing water volleyball on Memorial Day and shooting off fireworks for the Fourth of July. Ballantyne’s waters were never the prettiest to swim in, with you rarely being able to see its sandy bottom except in the shallows, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.
The walls of our cabin are covered with old framed pictures: the family sitting around the campfire, one of my aunts lounging in a hammock, and countless photos of people in the water. The smiles of the people in this latter group of pictures reflect their carefree enjoyment of the lake, but this hasn’t always been the case. Recently, my mother told me some stories from her childhood, which are quite revealing of the threats our water bodies are facing across the state. When she was young, the lake used to be covered with green and slimy algal blooms, a telltale sign of eutrophication resulting from nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. She also recounted how one spring, after the ice had thawed and the lake had opened up, hundreds of dead fish were revealed to be underneath. It had been a cold winter, so it’s possible that the fish had merely died after being frozen, but many of the lakeside residents had a hanging suspicion that the high death-toll was the result of farm runoff making its way into Ballantyne. And as most of us know, this conclusion is less of a hunch and more of a long-apparent fact.
Luckily, Ballantyne’s waters have recovered and are now merely turbid, likely due to its sandy bottom, and no longer show signs of excess nitrogen and phosphorous. The numerous farms that used to line its shores have been replaced by more friendly houses and cabins. But many water bodies across Minnesota aren’t so lucky. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, as of last summer, there are over 3,500 impaired waterways in the state, with more being added to the list every year. These lakes, rivers, and streams are classified as impaired because they do not meet certain water quality standards, which means they can be unsafe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. As alluded to above, agriculture is the primary culprit for the excess nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediments that reach these waters, accounting for at least 72% of the nitrogen pollution in a typical year.
While nutrient standards have been set for Minnesota’s lakes, more needs to be done by our government to protect our waters. First off, comparable standards are needed for our rivers and streams; these waterways flow directly into many of our lakes and are an important source of drinking water for thousands of Minnesotans. Secondly, there needs to be more communication between the different levels of government and between agencies at these various levels. As things currently stand, the control and regulation of our state’s waters is fragmented between local water boards, the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several other entities. A more unified approach is greatly needed. Lastly, and most importantly, we have to hold the agricultural industry more accountable. Unlike sewer systems and other aspects of municipalities, agricultural sources of pollution are not directly regulated, even though they are known to be the most significant source of pollution. Instead, our government, and the national government as well, have opted for voluntary programs for farmers to reduce their nitrogen and phosphorous’ footprints. These methods can be occasionally successful, but for the most part allow the biggest polluters to contaminate our waterways with impunity, while profiting immensely. New rules need to be put in place that would require farmers to participate in pollution-reducing programs.
Our lakes and rivers are a source of our state’s pride and name (Minnesota means “land of clear water”), and thus we should perform our proper role as stewards. We need to do whatever we can to ensure that Lake Ballantyne, and all the other water-bodies across our state, remain viable sources of relaxation and fun for generations to come.