ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Nonprofit coalition advocates initiative to preserve Mississippi headwaters. Study indicates $490-$500 million in direct and indirect benefits

A coalition of environmental nonprofits are pushing an initiative to clean up the Mississippi headwaters--an extensive preservation project expected to cost $400-$600 million, but save or accrue hundreds of millions annually for Minnesotans acros...

A boat makes its way up the Mississippi River Thursday, April 4, near French Rapids north of Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
A boat makes its way up the Mississippi River Thursday, April 4, near French Rapids north of Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

A coalition of environmental nonprofits are pushing an initiative to clean up the Mississippi headwaters-an extensive preservation project expected to cost $400-$600 million, but save or accrue hundreds of millions annually for Minnesotans across the state.

"Basically we're calling out that we're here where the Mississippi begins. The waters are still clean, we know that, but conversation of natural lands is going on fast due to urban growth, production, all kinds of land conversation," said Todd Holman, the Mississippi headwaters program director with the Nature Conservancy. "We have an opportunity to make a business case along with a conservation case along with a 'how this affects real people' case."

In a joint report by the Nature Conservancy and Ecolab, advocates indicate the Mississippi headwaters-about 13 million acres of forests, grasslands, wetlands, lakes and rivers in central Minnesota that feed into the Mississippi-are vulnerable, evidenced by spiking amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and chloride, among other pollutants in the water.

While the waterways remain mostly clean, researchers state, actions have to be taken to ensure the Mississippi doesn't share the same fate as the polluted Minnesota River. Land conversion-often for agriculture or urban development, among other purposes-is rapidly eroding much of Minnesota's natural grasslands, forests and water bodies.

"The Mississippi headwaters are critical to the whole state's quality of life, not just local. Here we know the river, we live by it, we experience fishing and recreation," Holman said during a phone interview Friday, April 5. "But, it's recognizing the larger value to the greater part of Minnesota. There's an economic impact for all Minnesotans."

ADVERTISEMENT

For comparison, in the Minnesota River basin, 90% of wetlands are drained, 80% of land is converted, 57% of lakes and 80% of rivers/streams are unsuitable for swimming or aquatic life.

According to the March 28 report "Mississippi Headwaters: The Business Case for Conservation," protecting or restoring a critical 208,000 acres in the Mississippi headwaters area would result in $130 million in direct benefits, including reduced water treatment costs, retained property values and taxes, reduced flood damages and retained tourism revenue and jobs.

An additional $360 million in indirect benefits would be acquired from cleaner air, mitigating carbon emissions and through avoiding public health costs from respiratory ailments, cancer and other illnesses associated with pollution, the report stated.

Drinking water for about 2.5 million people, or 44 percent of Minnesotans, feeds from or is directly taken from the Mississippi, the report states.

While it's divided roughly even-with 100,000 acres of land to be restored, while 108,000 acres of wetlands are to be protected-the preponderance of preventative measures would be taken in the northern areas of the headwaters. This includes the Brainerd lakes area and surrounding counties, which have relatively pristine waterways. On the other hand, southern counties are the focal points for restoration and cleanup efforts to remove pollutants, toxic algae, and other negative byproducts.

Though, Holman said, it's more complicated than that. While it may be difficult for central Minnesotans to envision the necessity of restoring these waterways when their own lakes and rivers are so pristine, it's all tied together-both the efforts and costs, as well as the benefits.

"We have an opportunity here in the headwaters that may not exist in more developed areas. We have a lot of opportunities to be strategic, to hold the river before the water degrades in quality over time," said Holman, who identified the Pine River and Crow Wing River watersheds as critical sources that feed into the larger Mississippi headwaters.

So what's the price tag? The study provided additional details. Preservation efforts cost about $1,250 per acre. It's more expensive to restore, which costs about $4,275 per acre-or, in terms of the degraded Minnesota River, about $2 billion to rectify the issue after it's progressed beyond the point of prevention. According to the study, it would cost an estimated $2.7 billion to restore the Mississippi if it becomes as degraded as the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota. Restoring lakes throughout the Mississippi River's headwaters area could cost an additional $4 billion.

ADVERTISEMENT

Projects associated with this initiative include the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscapes program, the Crow Wing River Healthy Watershed program, the Pine River Healthy Watershed program, the Headwaters Board program, Holman said.

In addition, the conservatory report indicated waterfront homeowners could retain over $30 million in property value.The process would negate $61 million in water treatment costs, $29 million in flood prevention costs-all in areas that bring in about $2.3 billion for the state annually.

About the report

For the report, the Nature Conservancy and Ecolab evaluated a range of information sources to formulate their conclusions, including about 50 studies and reports from environmental researchers and state and federal agencies; interviews with 15 experts from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Explore Minnesota and other conservation efforts across the United

States, university professors, Ecolab, McKinsey and the Nature Conservancy; five case studies of land conservation and water quality improvement efforts across the US; as well as

primary geospatial analysis.

To see highlights of the report, go to https://bit.ly/2YSVve9 .

What To Read Next
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.
Inmates in-custody in the Mille Lacs County jail in Milaca, Minnesota
Inmates in-custody in the Hubbard County jail in Park Rapids, Minnesota
Inmates in-custody in the Todd County jail in Long Prairie, Minnesota