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Efforts underway to improve water quality in ND, Minn.

FARGO -- The Red River has long had problems with cloudiness, mercury contamination in fish and, in spots, fecal bacteria pollution.

In reaches along and near Fargo-Moorhead, the Red River is considered impaired by the Environmental Protection Agency because of mercury, which limits fish consumption, and E. coli bacteria.

But efforts are underway in North Dakota and Minnesota to improve the quality of the water in the Red River and its tributaries as part of a broader effort to improve water quality.

A recent report by the EPA found that more than half of the nation's rivers and streams are impaired.

More than 55 percent of almost 2,000 locations sampled in 2008 and 2009 were found to be in poor condition, while 23 percent were deemed fair and 21 percent in good biological health.

The EPA recently launched an Internet portal, My Waterway, to allow people to easily check the health of bodies of water.

Although areas of the Red are impaired in certain categories, the quality of the water actually is good overall, officials in North Dakota and Minnesota said.

That's an assessment Bob Backman, executive director of River Keepers in Fargo, agrees with.

"It's one of the better water bodies in the U.S., even though it's impaired," he said. "This is the best drinking water in the United States."

But no one argues it couldn't be better -- and environmental officials in both Minnesota and North Dakota are working on plans to improve water quality, as required by the Clean Water Act.

Minnesota is halfway through a decade-long effort to improve the state's waters, with a goal of ending impaired classifications. A similar process is at work in North Dakota.

"We're just in the studying phase right now," said Jim Courneya, supervisor of watersheds for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Detroit Lakes. "We're just getting started with implementation planning right now."

First, officials are identifying pollution sources, most of which are dispersed, "non-point" sources such as runoff from farm fields and feedlots, as well as roads and parking lots.

Animals, both domesticated livestock and wildlife, are a major source of fecal bacteria in rivers. Municipal sewage treatment plants are required to disinfect their waste.

"That's really controlled quite well," Courneya said.

E. coli bacteria can survive for long periods, making it difficult to determine their source.

"We've found high E. coli numbers where we weren't expecting them," Courneya said. Birds, especially swallows, like to nest under bridges, and their droppings contaminate the river below.

"We've found they contribute a lot of E. coli," he said.

Mercury pollution also is dispersed. Research has shown that most mercury is deposited with rain from the atmosphere, originating in industrial smokestacks, Courneya said.

Cloudiness, or turbidity, is prevalent in the Red River, caused by fine soil particles suspended in the water. Algae also can cause turbidity.

"All of these problems are problems we have to find a way to deal with," Courneya said.

To improve impaired rivers, officials will determine levels of pollutants, called total maximum daily load, that the water can safely contain.

Pollution reduction efforts will start in the tributaries, then progress to the Red River, said Peter Wax, an environmental scientist with the North Dakota Department of Health.

"Overall, we're not too bad," Wax said of the health of North Dakota's rivers. "There's a desire in North Dakota to keep it that way."