Living for the Long Haul: Here are possible solutions to water quality threats

Columnists continue looking at water quality issues


PINE RIVER — In previous columns we discussed a variety of threats to our lakes and streams and to our subsurface groundwater here in north central Minnesota.

We discussed nitrate, phosphates and pesticide and herbicide contamination related to fertilizing and controlling weeds and pests in our farm fields, lawns and gardens. Contamination of our lakes and streams with mercury, synthetic organic compounds and chloride were also discussed.

Finally, the problem of pumping large quantities of groundwater for personal and farm irrigation purposes was discussed.

In this column, we will present possible solutions to these problems.

First of all, if you have your own well, get your water tested regularly. Most of us neglect to do this but it is essential to our health, to monitoring the health of our local environment and it doesn’t cost that much.


Water samples can be dropped off at the Central Water Testing Laboratory in Brainerd or testing can be done at free water testing clinics that are sponsored periodically by groups in this area.

Nitrate, phosphorus, pesticide and herbicide pollution, and water use tend to overlap. This is because farmers, gardeners, golf courses and folks who care for lawns use all of these products simultaneously. Most of us apply too much of these products, wasting money and polluting the environment in process.

It is incumbent on each of us to use only the amount that plants need for their growth. Any excess either runs off or percolates into our groundwater. Talking with a county extension agent or visiting the University of Minnesota Extension website ( ) can be helpful in finding information on proper amounts of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to apply.

Another way to reduce chemical runoff into waterways is to leave buffer strips. Buffers strips are strips of land on the edge of fields allowed to grow to native grasses. These grasses prevent runoff of rainwater and filter out phosphorus and nitrogen.

Buffer strips can be applied to farm fields, shorelands of lakes and streams, lawns, golf courses and even city lots. In town, a similar concept uses rain gardens, which are designed to catch, hold and use rainwater, decreasing runoff into storm drains.

Sustainable farming practices markedly reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and reduce the need for crop irrigation. More farmers every year are converting to sustainable practices. Many of these folks belong to the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota or the Land Stewardship Project.

Principles of sustainable farming include: building soil fertility, crop rotation, planting cover crops, reducing or eliminating tilling of soil, integrating livestock onto cropland and integrating trees and shrubs into cropland.

Planting cover crops (usually grasses or legumes) after the primary crop is harvested has several advantages. Cover crops reduce water runoff, take up excess synthetic fertilizer (thus reducing runoff), produce nitrogen in the soil and provide wildlife habitat. Because they produce nitrogen, they reduce the need for commercial fertilizers the next year.


We can apply these principles to gardens as well as to farm fields.

Whether we grow crops or not, we can support sustainable farming practices that ultimately protect our waters.

First of all, we can purchase crops, meats and poultry from farmers who raise vegetables free of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, and humanely raise pasture-fed cattle, pigs and chickens. Unlike large agribusiness executives, these small producers live here and have a vested interest in the well-being of this community.

We can buy their products at co-op grocery stores or, better yet, buy directly off the farm or at farmers markets of which there are many in the area during the summer.

Buying organic foods assures us that the food was raised without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Therefore, even though this food is frequently more expensive, we can be assured that the food is not contaminated with these products and that we are helping to reduce environmental pollution.

In conclusion, we all make choices every day that affect the quality of the many beautiful lakes and streams here in lake country of Minnesota. Every time we buy french fries at McDonald's, we support an outdated agricultural system that is putting large quantities of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides into our environment and taking large amounts of groundwater to irrigate their crop.

Alternatively, each time we purchase local, sustainably grown products, we’re voting with our dollars for the type of environmental quality we want to have in our rural Minnesota community.

 (References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: 


Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are caretakers/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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