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League leads way to protect natural resources

In its continuing mission to educate the public, the League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area hosted a program about the LWV Upper Mississippi River Regions (LWV UMRR) mission and activities last week.

The Inter League Organizations (ILO) are formal organizations recognized by the national LWV, established due to their members recognizing the need to work together at a regional level to effectively solve problems that transcend political boundaries; the issues surrounding the Upper Mississippi River Regions, for example.

The organization includes leagues from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin with one mission, to pursue protecting the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

The LWV has been at the forefront of efforts to protect natural resources since the 1960s after the enactment of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In June 2014, members of the LWVs in Jo Daviess County, Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa met to discuss forming an ILO. Since then, they have received approval of the state LWV boards in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois to pursue the development of the ILO. Now, the UMRR ILO is made up of 58 local leagues and four state leagues in the Mississippi River watershed.

In 2015, it was decided that the UMRR ILO's primary focus would be reducing nutrient pollution.

Nutrient pollution is a major threat to water quality, excess nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff of city streets and farm fields as well as wastewater treatment plants fuels the growth of algae which decreases oxygen needed by aquatic plants and animals.

"Basically nutrient pollution is too much of a good thing," said Gretchen Sabel, president of the LWV UMRR, and now retired employee of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Sabel added, "Modern agriculture is a modern miracle to be able to grow so much food but it comes at a cost, and so what we have is this runaway nitrogen and it's suffocating wildlife and contaminating groundwater and warming the climate."

According to Sabel, when all of these nutrients flood into a waterbody, if there is not enough change in that waterbody, the algae grows and dies and then uses up all of the oxygen during decomposition, creating "dead zones."

Julie Kingsley, manager of the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District, explained what citizens should be aware of on a local level.

"Up here the river is in great shape. The land use here is mainly forested, lakes and wetlands," she said. "The Headwaters are an exceptional resource that should be protected to keep it pristine and healthy."

In January 2017, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a report outlining the conditions of the Mississippi River.

After reading the report, Kingsley said from Itasca up to Lake Bemidji over to Grand Rapids the river is in good shape. From Grand Rapids down to Brainerd it is still fairly healthy.

"The river mostly meets the river life and recreation standards," Kingsley explained, adding that river life measures the activity of insects, fish and so on.

From Brainerd to St. Cloud the river fails recreational standards. Bacteria levels rise and pollutants, such as sediment and an excess in nutrients begin to enter the river through runoff, drainage and tributaries, making the water unsafe for swimming.

From St. Cloud south to Dayton, the Crow River enters the Mississippi and doubles the phosphorus and nitrate pollution levels. The primary cause is that the Crow River drains a large area that is heavily farmed.

From Dayton to the Twin Cities it fails the standards for river life, recreational standards, nutrient levels are high enough to cause algal blooms and other problems.

"To put things in perspective, the Mississippi is the largest watershed there is. It's 1.2 million square miles," Kingsley said. "The Mississippi Headwaters (watershed) has 1,255,105 acres and it is largely forested. When you keep the ground covered it helps keep it healthy. It helps all of the different ecosystems work, it helps purify the water and it helps draw nutrients out into the plants."

Kingsley added that there are 685 miles of streams and 180,375 acres of lakes in the Mississippi Headwaters Watershed.

The Upper Mississippi watershed runs approximately 510 miles and the basin drains 20,105 square miles, with 44 percent of the land in this watershed privately owned.

"Looking at the big picture, the northern section needs protection. Where in the southern part it needs restoration," Kingsley said. "And up here there hasn't been a lot of work done on protection strategies."

The UMRR ILO plans to correct this by educating citizens in over 75 different communities in four states on what can be done on an individual, community, regional and national level to fix the problem.

By using their 501c3 status, the UMRR ILO pools time and resources to apply for grants to help with educational efforts by collaborating with other LWVs in other sections of the country.

"This is a grim time for environmental legislation," Sabel said, adding that there were several bills that came into the legislature this year that were rolled into an omnibus bill that could hinder the UMRR ILO's environmental protection efforts.

"The ability for people to interact with their government is becoming stifled," Sabel said, adding that the league capitalizes on the relationships made with legislators and regulators at every level of government to help advocate for legislation to regulate and fix the problem.

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