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Minnesotans have been waging water quality battles for decades, but population growth, agriculture, development and new kinds of pollutants continue to pose difficult challenges. Sewage systems, industrial regulations and better technology have solved problems, but rivers and lakes continue to suffer.

On one level, the issues seem ripe for state and federal policy debate. At the same time, Minnesotans are tackling things at the community level, working to form new collaborations, testing new farming techniques, placing new restrictions on property owners and turning to technology to help matters.

With this report, Ground Level explores some of these efforts to take action and places them in the context of how Minnesota is — or is not — protecting its water heritage.

Video: Trying to step lightly on the land

See how Tony Thompson practices what he preaches and spreads the word every year at a conference on his Windom area farm.

Emerging technologies — from corn that needs less nitrogen to floating plastic islands that absorb phosphorous — could help solve some of the state's water quality problems.

Places to watch if you want to test Minnesota's progress on water quality.

Reporter Jennifer Vogel discusses water quality issues with MPR's Tom Crann on All Things Considered:

We asked seven Minnesotans to give us their thoughts. What are yours?

Question 1: Farms and water
Question 2: Does local matter?
Question 3: Why take action?
Conversation: Farming and pollution

Water study landed quietly but helps shape debate

U of M researchers criss-crossed the state, studied the data and involved hundreds to build a report the Legislature could use for decades to frame how the Land of 10,000 Lakes talks about water.

Focusing on a watershed, pilot project makes case more convincing

Examining water problems across a larger area lets local officials and landowners pinpoint priorities.

You can understand a lot about the history, the difficulties and the successes and failures in the realm of water quality if you get two concepts: point source pollution and non-point source pollution.


Point source pollution runs from a pipe into a river or a lake. It's the easier of the two to identify and to fix (although such monumental battles as the Reserve Mining case in the 1970s have been fought over it.) To the extent that water quality has improved in Minnesota, it's largely the result of dealing in recent decades with point sources like sewage treatment plants and industrial operations by means of a national system of permits, regulatory limits and potential fines.

Non-point source pollution is harder to identify and to fix. It can include nitrates, phosphorus, bacteria and other materials that run off farmland, lakeshore property and developed urban land. Another water problem involves the presence of mercury, which typically gets into water from the air and whose source is similarly difficult to pinpoint. Efforts to deal with non-point source pollution tend to involve looking at networks of land and water use and trying to educate and change the behavior of many people and organizations.

Cleaning Minnesota's Water — Glossary

Click to expand the glossary

We identify topics that are significant and complex and that play out uniquely at the local level. We want to explore those issues in which people taking action in their communities make a difference and can serve as guides for others.

Ground Level launched in early 2010 and shines a light on a variety of topics, from the growing complexity of Minnesota's local food system to cities preparing for new fiscal realities, from exurban growth in Baldwin Township to the quest to expand broadband access across the state.

We experiment with coverage on a variety of platforms. This includes text, audio and video online, of course - the Ground Level blog, a series of topics pages and social networking, for example. It also includes on-air coverage, public forums both virtual and real-world and collaboration with community-based media.

Our audience consists of Minnesotans interested in community life, particularly those who are taking an active part in it or helping others do the same.

Ground Level is very much an experiment -- in finding ways to learn about and tell stories, in working with other organizations, in walking up to the line between providing insight and advocating specific actions. Our goal is to inform and give people the ability and incentive to engage with their community. We invite your feedback and your ideas, via the blog, twitter at @MPRGroundLevel, phone calls, emails, whatever. Join us.

About the team:

Dave Peters

Dave Peters directs MPR's project on community journalism, looking for ways Minnesota residents are making their towns, cities and neighborhoods better places to live. He joined MPR News in 2009 after more than 30 years as a newspaper and online reporter and editor. Contact Dave

Bush Foundation

Support for Ground Level is provided
by the Bush Foundation.