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'25 by 25': Town hall on water quality held in Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- Local and state officials talked about ways to improve water quality in Minnesota on Wednesday before turning the question to residents for more ideas.

The event was the seventh of 10 water quality town hall events held across the state. Starting in July, the series of meetings are part of an initiative launched by Gov. Mark Dayton dubbed “25 by 25,” meaning a goal of improving the state’s water quality 25 percent by 2025.

Dayton, who was initially scheduled to appear at the event, was unable to attend. However, his water advisor Anna Henderson was on hand to address the crowd of about 250 people at Bemidji High School.

“We’re here to listen and learn from all of you about the water quality improvements that you want to see and how we can increase the pace of progress,” Henderson said.

Across much of Minnesota, the discussion has been about lakes and rivers impaired by excess phosphorus and nitrogen, too much road salt, invasive species, declining water tables due to overuse and the need for buffer strips to keep farm runoff out of rivers.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht kicked off the event with a speech, listing water quality as a key factor in the city’s livelihood.

“As Minnesotans and as Bemidjians, we pride ourselves in our rich natural resources, our outdoor recreation opportunities and our clean water,” Albrecht said. “In Bemidji, our economy depends on all three.”

An example Albrecht gave was the city’s urban forestry effort, which plants new trees every year and helps to fix broken trees. Albrecht said urban forestry can help make a difference in how much water goes into the storm drains, how much is used up in the growth of the trees and how much energy cooling trees have.

Albrecht also talked about maintaining safe drinking water for municipalities to the south.

“The first city on the Mississippi to have drinking water out of the river is St. Cloud. They want to know that the water we’re putting into the water of the Mississippi is clean. I can assure you that our city has received many awards for our operation and we exceeded the levels of treatment and nutrients required by the state of Minnesota,” Albrecht said. “We do better than that and it’s something we work hard at doing.”

Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews also spoke at the event, focusing on stormwater management.

“As the first city on the Mississippi, we’re proud to participate in any way we can with the 25 by 25 initiative. We know that as the first city, we set an example for other cities in the state,” Mathews said. “A very important component of what we do as a city is control and manage the runoff and our surface water discharges.”

Mathews listed concerns the city has encountered when managing stormwater runoff. These range from concrete from trucks washed into ditches to other construction activity.

Additionally, Mathews noted that Lake Irving has been designated as impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and, as a result, a total maximum daily load is in development for stormwater.

In response to runoff concerns, Mathews discussed erosion control fixes done by the city to prevent sediment from going into local wetlands. As an example, Mathews discussed a project in 2016 to maintain the city’s storm retention pond near BSU.

Toward the end of Mathews’ presentation, a group of people opposed to Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipe replacement project interrupted the town hall, standing up and voicing that opposition before leaving the event.

State level effort

The 25 by 25 initiative began when Dayton’s office received estimates that Minnesota’s water was only expected to improve 6 to 8 percent by 2034. The governor then set goals to better the state’s water while also meeting existing commitments to reduce phosphorus by 12 percent by 2025 and nitrogen by 45 percent by 2040 in the Mississippi River.

As a whole, goals for the 25 by 25 initiative include reducing phosphorus, sediment erosion and nitrogen. Additionally, the initiative is planned to have efforts increasing protection of land where drinking water recharges, increasing private well testing for contaminants and increasing acres of perennial crops.

“Gov. Dayton has challenged Minnesotans to think differently about how we manage our water resources. He’s asked us more individually, at our businesses and at our state and local governments,” Albrecht said. “We can all agree that taking care of our water is a priority, it’s the right issue to focus on and it’s the right time to do it. We need to focus on that priority for our children and our grandchildren.”

After opening speeches and comments, attendees worked in groups to answer questions including:

  • What goals could be established to improve water quality by 25 percent in north central Minnesota?
  • What actions are needed to get to these goals for north central Minnesota?
  • What specific next steps are needed to move the actions forward now?

Before Bemidji, the last town hall took place in Ely on Tuesday and the next is scheduled for Tuesday in Minneapolis.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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