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Protecting and Enhancing Water Quality

Federal, state and local governmental agencies all play roles in water quality management in Minnesota. Key agencies include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (BSWR). Management efforts focus on protecting and enhancing water quality primarily by controlling and preventing sources of pollution. The mechanisms used to control and prevent pollution depend on whether targeted pollutants emanate from point or nonpoint sources. Point source polluters are identifiable because the source of the pollutants can be pinpointed. Examples of point sources of pollution include discharge pipes from municipal wastewater treatment and industrial processing plants. In contrast, nonpoint source pollutants come from a variety of sources such that the origin of the pollutants cannot be pinpointed. Examples of nonpoint sources of pollution include contaminated runoff and seepage from agricultural, construction, forestry, and mining activities as well as from urban pavement.

While the U.S. EPA provides leadership in the area of water quality under the Clean Water Act, the PCA in Minnesota designs programs and develops, administers, monitors and enforces standards to protect and enhance the quality of the state’s surface water resources. Provisions contained in federal statutes related to the 1972 Clean Water Act, and subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1987, encourage each state to administer standards, provided the state’s standards meet or exceed those set by the EPA. Within the PCA’s northern, southern, and metro districts and in the environmental outcomes division, water quality staff assist individuals and organizations in meeting pollution control mandates.

The Water Quality Division’s Monitoring and Assessment Section develops water quality standards, including numerical standards for 53 toxic pollutants (at the time of this writing) and detailed procedures for establishing standards for additional toxic pollutants. River water quality is assessed based on the number of violations of both conventional and toxic pollutant standards. The PCA reports these assessments to the EPA and Congress every two years in accordance with section 305(b) of the federal Clean Water Act.

The PCA’s Point-Source Compliance Section issues wastewater treatment permits for municipalities and businesses, tracks compliance and enforces permit conditions. It administers point source discharge permits under both the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit and the Minnesota State Disposal System permit program. Before the PCA will grant or renew a discharge permit, the point source discharger must demonstrate both the intention and ability to comply to effluent limits. The PCA reviews and selects proposals for funding. The BWSR also assists local governments by developing model rules and ordinances for point and nonpoint source pollution prevention and control, based on U.S. Soil Conservation Service technical guidelines, for use by local governments.

The Clean Water Act, as amended in 1987, mandates development of a Nonpoint Source Pollution Assessment Report and Management Program in each state. In Minnesota, the PCA’s Nonpoint-Source Compliance Section develops standards and administers programs to control nonpoint source pollution from farmland, feedlots, construction sites, septic systems, roadways, and other sources. Controlling and preventing nonpoint source pollution raises difficult management issues because specific polluters often cannot be identified directly. Management efforts are coordinated by an interagency Project Coordination Team composed of representatives of 13 state and federal agencies and directed towards activities known to cause nonpoint pollution.

The Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR) addresses river pollution issues related to sediment and agricultural or urban nonpoint sources. The BWSR operates as a state administrative agency for local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), which assist local owners in protecting community soil and water resources. SWCDs provide assistance in developing and funding projects. They identify lands that contribute substantial amounts of nonpoint source pollution and ask landowners to participate in projects to reduce soil erosion and pollutant flow from their property. The state provides up to 75% of the funding for these projects for eligible participating landowners. The PCA’s Watershed Assistance Section oversees and integrates efforts related to monitoring, assessment and point and nonpoint pollution control and prevention to protect and restore water resources within Minnesota’s nine major drainage basins.

Other initiatives in Minnesota designed to prevent and control nonpoint source pollution and enhance water quality include the Metropolitan Surface Water Management Act (1982), the Comprehensive Local Water Management Act (1985), the Individual Sewage Treatment Systems Act (1994), and the Clean Water Partnership Program (1987). Under the Clean Water Partnership Program, the PCA provides grants to local government for water quality protection and improvement projects.

The Minnesota DNR plays only a minor role in regulatory issues related to water quality. However, through its land-use planning and zoning policies it influences developmental decisions and concomitant potential for point and nonpoint source pollution to Minnesota’s waterways. Through monitoring and inspections programs, the DNR Ecological Services Section enforces federal and state laws regarding the use of aquatic pesticides in public waters. It also investigates major pollution spills and fish and wildlife kills, and collects specimens for toxic substance and pesticide analyses.

The DNR also engages in education and outreach programs designed to enhance and protect river resources. The DNR’s Trails and Waterways Unit administers the state’s Adopt-A-River Program, which solicits public involvement in river cleanup and provides organizations with information and guidance on organizing and carrying out river cleanup projects. It also publishes a newsletter on progress achieved on “adopted” rivers. To reduce and prevent point and nonpoint pollution from lands adjacent to Minnesota rivers, the DNR developed voluntary Best Management Practice (BMP) guidelines for use by landowners.


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