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Red River water quality 'generally poor,' Minnesota officials say

MOORHEAD — The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says water quality in the Red River watershed is "generally poor," and recommends changes along the Red and its tributaries to trim levels of fecal coliform bacteria and sediments, reduce erosion, and improve habitat for fish and for recreational uses.

Monitoring of the Red between Georgetown and Breckenridge — including Moorhead — found excessive levels of E. coli bacteria and suspended solids from field runoff and erosion, the MPCA said in a news release Wednesday, Aug. 2.

"Water quality in the watershed is generally poor, reflecting intensely cultivated land use, changes to streams to increase drainage, intensive drainage," and a lack of vegetation to act as buffers for many wetlands and streams in the watershed, the agency said.

Drinking water in cities such as Fargo and Moorhead, which treat the water they draw from the Red River, is safe, officials with the North Dakota Department of Health, Moorhead Public Service, and the Buffalo Red River Watershed District said Wednesday.

MPCA spokesman Dan Olson said many of the water quality problems for the Red and its tributaries are caused by intensive agricultural activity, with many tributaries altered for speedy drainage.

Structures built to control drainage and flooding can also "pose barriers to fish passage" for spawning, he said, affecting fish populations.

Drainage can be so quick that in what are normal periods of rainfall, water levels in streams and creeks can plummet, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic wildlife to survive, Olson said.

Bruce Albright, district administrator for the Buffalo Red River Watershed District (BRRWD), said water quality is checked at about 35 sites in the watershed.

A 2016 BRRWD water quality report checked levels of E. coli (from fecal matter), dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, acidity and suspended solids as part of a water quality index. The report found nearly all of the test sites had water quality rated as marginal to fair. Only one location, on the Otter Tail River near Fergus Falls, was rated excellent.

Testing for fecal coliform bacteria (which include E. coli) found the percentage of failed tests ranged from a low of 19.7 percent in the Otter Tail River near Breckenridge and 26.2 percent on the Buffalo River above Hay Creek, to 82.2 percent on Stony Creek and 77.6 percent in Becker County's Ditch 9.

Mike Ell, an environmental scientist for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the testing has found high fecal coliform concentrations just south of the Fargo-Moorhead area near Wahpeton-Breckenridge, but no problems in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The water quality standard for fecal coliform bacteria is 126 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, or 126 coliform colony-forming units (CCFUs), or less, Ell said.

Anything less than that, and a body of water is safe for recreational use, he said.

A September 2016 sampling on the river found the vast bulk of samples at 100 CCFUs or less, with the majority at 60 or less.

Ell said he doesn't expect any "significant impact" on the Red's condition once a 36-mile flood diversion channel is built around Fargo-Moorhead. He said a monitoring program is in place to keep tabs on the river as the diversion is built and operated. The diversion has also been designed to not impede fish migration, he said.

The MPCA has two draft reports available for comment on its Upper Red River webpage.

They are the Upper Red River Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Upper Red River Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS).

The TMDL report quantifies pollutant levels, identifies pollution sources and proposes ways to return water quality to an acceptable level.

The WRAPS report identifies impaired bodies of water and those in need of protection, and identifies the actions needed to achieve and maintain water quality.

Comments on the reports should be sent to Jim Courneya, 714 Lake Ave., Suite 220, Detroit Lakes, MN 56501; by email, jim.courneya@state.mn.us; or by phone, (218) 846-8105.

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