New report documents once-polluted Rainy River’s recovery


Nicole Blasing has fond memories of fishing and playing in the lakes and streams around her tiny hometown of Littlefork, Minn., just 10 miles south of the border between Minnesota and Canada that’s marked by the wide Rainy River. 

In a state revered for its lakes, it’s a region truly dominated by water. With thousands of rivers, wetlands and lakes, there is more water than land in some places. 

Yet, even as a child in the early 1980s, Blasing knew that some of that water was not nearly as clean as it should have been. 

“I remember when I was just a little girl, my grandpa and dad would say, ‘Well, we’re gonna go fishing today, but we can’t go to the Rainy River, because we can’t keep the fish on the river because of the pollution,’” she said.

Over a period of many decades, the Rainy River had become severely degraded, from industrial pollution discharged from paper mills along its banks and from raw sewage dumped by cities on both sides of the border. 

But a new report released Monday by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency documents how the Rainy River has been transformed, with water quality now defined as “good to excellent” — which provides clean drinking water, and, to Blasing’s delight, supports a world-class walleye and sturgeon fishery. 

Blasing, who’s now a watershed manager for the MPCA, said by the time she was in college, she could return home, go fishing with her dad and grandpa, and keep — and eat — the fish. 

That rapid turnaround is a testament to the power of pollution regulations, enacted and enforced on both sides of the border, Blasing said. 

“And now knowing that people drive from miles and miles away to go and fish [the Rainy River], is just amazing.” 

The new Rainy River report is the fourth in a series of state studies of Minnesota’s major river systems. The Pollution Control Agency previously analyzed the Upper Mississippi, the Minnesota and the Red rivers. It will look at the St. Croix River next.

To study the Rainy, scientists analyzed data spanning ten years from 13 different sites along the river, monitoring water quality for recreation, human health, fish and tiny aquatic insects known as macroinvertebrates. 

The Rainy River is relatively short, flowing only 86 miles from Rainy Lake, just east of International Falls, to Lake of the Woods. But it drains a huge area, extending east to near Lake Superior and covering about 21,000 square miles. 

Its environmental decline began in the early 1900s, when paper mills were built in International Falls, on the U.S. side of the river, and Fort Frances, on the Canadian side. 

Those mills were the economic lifeblood of the region. But prosperity came at a steep price. Waste from the mills clouded the river with sediment, poisoned aquatic life and depleted oxygen levels for fish. 

The mills dumped so much leftover wood waste into the river that in some places it completely covered up the river. 

“I’ve talked to old-timers who tell me they had to dig through three to six-foot mats of wood fiber to find the water,” said Mike Kennedy, an MPCA watershed project manager. 

At the same time, the towns of International Falls and Fort Frances were discharging untreated sewage into the river. 

The water quality had degraded to such a degree that by the early 1960s, the International Joint Commission, which was established in the early 1900s by the U.S. and Canada, reported that the Rainy River downstream of Fort Frances was a “potential menace to health, unfit for bathing, discourages the development of waterfront property, is unsuitable for growth of many forms of aquatic life and unattractive for recreation.” 

The river’s remarkable turnaround began in the early 1970s, when new Canadian and U.S. environmental laws began to require cities and industries to implement measures such as wastewater treatment to meet water quality standards. 

Kennedy said it’s difficult to fathom the state of the river a half-century ago when he stands on its shores today. 

“Today, the river has fast-flowing, consistent flows. There are no more mats of pollution from discharges into the river.”

And the river now boasts trophy walleye and sturgeon fishing. In the early spring, anglers bundle up in snowsuits to catch 10-pound walleye swimming upstream from Lake of the Woods to spawn. 

“And the opportunity to catch a three, four or 5-foot sturgeon is pretty remarkable in a river that was once clogged with wood fiber,” Kennedy said. 

Protecting the river

While state regulators credit environmental protection laws for much of the Rainy River’s recovery, it also benefits from its geography. 

The Rainy River basin includes millions of acres of undeveloped wilderness on both sides of the border, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park, which protect the river and help filter the water that flows into it. 

The new MPCA report stresses that maintaining the health of the wetlands and forests that surround it is critical to maintaining the Rainy River’s health. 

“Any major changes in the land draining to the river, such as incentives to expand cropland on the Canadian side and proposals for [copper-nickel] mining on the U.S. side, will need careful consideration on how to protect the river from any negative impacts,” the report states. 

Opponents of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine — which if approved would be built near Ely — have argued that any pollution that escapes into the nearby Boundary Waters would flow through Voyageurs National Park and into the Rainy River. 

Another potential trouble spot is the large amount of clay sediment that the Little Fork River discharges into the Rainy River during spring runoff and after large storms. That clouds the water and can make it hard for fish and other aquatic life to breathe. 

Pallets of sandbags stack up at Kerry Park.

Pallets of sandbags stack up at Kerry Park in International Falls in June 2014 as the Rainy River watershed flooded.

John Enger | MPR News 2014

That sediment also contains phosphorus. Researchers are currently studying how that sediment relates to algae blooms that are forming downstream in Lake of the Woods, Kennedy said. 

Additionally, like many rivers and lakes across Minnesota, there are advisories on how many fish can be safely eaten from the Rainy River because of high mercury levels, caused largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants that are deposited into the water. 

Despite those challenges, watershed manager Mike Kennedy said that the Rainy River’s rapid transition, from heavily polluted waterway to recreational jewel, deserves to be celebrated. 

“The river was very, very polluted back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and earlier than that,” he said. “And it was just really a great news story to see how clean and how far the river has come in those years since the ‘60s.”

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