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Knife River among 2,500 impaired waters statewide

The Knife River was one of close to 2,500 waterways on the list of impaired waters issued by the MPCA earlier this month. 2007 file photo / Derek Montgomery

Though portions of the Knife River were designated impaired earlier this month, Katrina Kessler, manager of the water assessment and environmental section of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the impairments won't affect the majority of people who come in contact with the river.

She said the MPCA tests are more of an early warning system than a sign that water is dangerous to human health.

"It's kind of a warning valve that our actions and decisions impact the quality of the water and that we need to do better," Kessler said.

Portions of the Knife River, including the West and Little Knife River, have been designated impaired because of mercury, turbidity and dissolved oxygen. The biggest concern, Kessler said, is mercury. The Minnesota Department of Health, which reviews data and issues fish consumption guidelines based on mercury levels, has not issued a warning for Knife River or the Little Knife River, indicating that state guidelines are sufficient.

The MPCA has developed a statewide mercury reduction plan, however many pollutants, including mercury, are out of the state's control. The MPCA can't control mercury that comes from power plants or taconite stacks in neighboring states or countries. Kessler said 90 percent of mercury pollution comes from outside the state.

Turbidity, indicating there's an excess amount of sediment in the water, is a concern in both the Knife River and Little Knife. A restoration plan has been implemented in the main branch, while a plan for the Little Knife will be developed in the next two years, according to Pat Carey, regional watershed supervisor for the MPCA.

Dissolved oxygen is lacking in the Little Knife River, and Carey said the MPCA will be investigating further and coming up with a plan if necessary.

"We know that the system does not achieve the standard ... but now we do additional work in the watershed to determine what the source is," he said.

In all, the MPCA added 500 bodies of water to its impaired list this year.

According to the PCA's draft report, the state has surveyed 4,123 waterways in recent years, with 2,497 found to be impaired. In all, 20,740 miles of river have been surveyed, with 14,265 miles considered impaired for at least one reason. Some 3,998 lake basins have been surveyed, of which 1,540 show impairment.

As of October, the state had reviewed 2,410,916 acres of lake (not including Lake Superior), of which 2,060,245 acres -- more than 85 percent -- officially were impaired.

"We're finding more impairments because we're looking at places we've never looked before, and we're looking for more things than we've ever looked for before,'' the PCA's Miranda Nichols said.

The public will get a chance to comment on the 2014 list, which goes to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval. The list is intended as a report card or snapshot on how the state is progressing, or not, toward upholding the federal Clean Water Act.

Kessler said getting input from local residents is an important part of the process.

They are looking for comments and observations from anyone who thoroughly knows any of the county's bodies of water.

"Sometimes, people who are intimately familiar with a given water may have a perspective we haven't considered, or something we haven't thought of," she said.

Kessler said having people on the ground, such as the Advocates for the Knife River Watershed, a citizen-led group, is vital to complementing the MPCA's efforts. When they implement plans to fix watersheds, these volunteers are essential.

"Once a resource is identified as impaired, it's vital that we have locals at the table because they are much more suited to put recommendations into place," Kessler said.

While the AKRW, which was officially formed last year, and the MPCA haven't yet forged a partnership, AKRW chair Leo Babeu said communicating with governmental agencies is a goal of the group.

In 2011, some citizens became concerned about how logging along the Knife River would add to erosion problems, and got in touch with St. Louis County, who was carrying out the logging. The conversation eventually led to the formation of the AKRW, and they, with students from North Shore Community School, began planting trees to stabilize the bank.

"It's kind of the energy from that experience that makes us want to do a long-term group ... and get informed and stay informed," Babeu said.

The group now meets at least six times a year at the Duluth Town Hall, often inviting speakers to give them more insight into the watershed. Find out more on their Facbook page or join the mailing list be emailing Julie Johnson at

The full draft of the impaired waters list is available at us. A public meeting concerning the list will be held Dec. 5, 10-11 a.m. at the MPCA office, 525, Lake Ave., Duluth. Written comments will be accepted Jan. 2-31. For more information, contact Miranda Nichols at 651-757-2614 or miranda.nichols@

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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