If you’ve read some of my other blogs, you will not be surprised to know that since moving to Rochester a couple of years ago, I’ve taken my lifelong fishing fanaticism to a whole new level with my newfound love for trout fishing. Every chance I get, I’m out on the Whitewater River, talking with other veteran fishermen, working on my fly casting or throwing small spinners in hopes of hooking the beautiful trout that reside in this peaceful, meandering river. At points, the Whitewater is around ten feet wide—moving along the bluffs and through the valleys, forming pools here and there where trout are in abundance; at others, it’s barely a stream— winding through farm fields and heavily-wooded areas, difficult to access by angers like myself. But, as I’ve said before, this blue- ribbon, spring-fed river is in jeopardy and so are the fish that attract anglers from all over the world.
When I started with Conservation Minnesota in Southern Minnesota, I needed to determine who the local experts were. One of the names that came up over and over was Jeff Broberg—a local geologist, current President of the Minnesota Trout Association, member of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and all-around knowledgeable guy when it comes to the local environment. At our first meeting, Jeff emphasized the importance of the Driftless Region, which encompasses Rochester, Winona and much of the far southeastern part of the state. Without going too far into geological detail, the region is made up of a very small area, which includes the Mississippi River-bordering states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Because the glaciers never covered this area, the geology is completely different from the rest of the upper Midwest and unique in the world. Sediment from receding glaciers never flattened or filled the natural caves and springs that exist, so caves are abundant both below and above ground and natural springs constantly feed the streams and create perfect habitat for trout. (For more information, there is an excellent video you can watch about the region).
He also stressed the threat that agricultural practices present. He has spent years studying water quality in the area and even on his own rural land, through no contribution of his own, his well recently tested at a toxic level for nitrates. Without mitigation, storm water quickly becomes groundwater and he has spent a lot of time working in collaboration with other agencies to reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides local farmers apply to their fields, particularly those that border the Whitewater. He was a vocal supporter of Governor Dayton’s buffer proposal and has spoken out publicly against the incentives that ethanol subsidies and corn prices have given farmers to implement reckless chemical application practices. So, it was no surprise to me when I read his recent rebuttal of an article in the Star Tribune regarding the massive, 24-hour fish kill that occurred last summer on the Whitewater.
Late last July, intense storms rolled through Southeastern Minnesota, causing over 2 inches of rain to fall quickly in some areas. A couple of days later, approximately 10,000 fish were discovered belly-up, their gills appearing “fried” over a 6-mile stretch of the Whitewater. Although tests were done on the water and none of the chemicals that are typically identified as toxic had concentrations at alarming levels, it had been a few days by the time testing was done. By that time the fish were decomposed, so testing on them was inconclusive as well.
Jeff maintains that it wasn’t one single fungicide, pesticide or fertilizer that was to blame. Rather, it was most likely a toxic cocktail of sorts that was destined to create an event like this given the applications taking place in the region in the weeks prior to the storm. But, what’s upsetting is the conclusion of the agencies with the responsibility for investigating the event and informing the public. Despite identifying what could have been responsible—high levels of several agriculturally common toxins and the knowledge of recent applications—they wouldn’t conclude or speculate and chose to go with, “it’s a mystery”. But, locals aren’t buying it.
Two weeks ago I was out fishing on the Whitewater for most of a Saturday. Afterward, I stopped into one of my favorite local places in St. Charles for a bite and in true small-town fashion, got into a conversation with the gentlemen sitting around me. They were surprised when I told them what I’d been doing all day (most people are, for whatever reason), but when they asked what I do for a living, the conversation immediately turned to the fish kill. These were not “tree-hugger” types and they were certainly not a liberal-minded group, but they blamed the issue on the surrounding agricultural community. All three grew up in the immediate area around the Whitewater and they said that it isn’t the same river they grew up playing in and fishing from. Clarity, erosion and water quality were all part of their conclusion that it isn’t being taken care of outside of park limits. One gentleman said, “You know there’s going to be a problem when you’re smelling fresh manure spread in January—you put that on frozen ground and it’s all going to melt off with the snow and run right into the river!” Another said, “We knew not to swim downstream from the cattle farms. Now I wouldn’t want to swim too close to the crop farms, either!” I knew what they were talking about; I smelled it myself from the river that day and despite not knowing much about farming, I was pretty sure spreading manure in January didn’t make any sense.
I’m used to getting skunked when I go fishing—it’s not actually a huge disappointment for me. I’m okay with it because I’m outside, listening to the water and enjoying nature. But, part of what got me hooked (no pun intended), on fishing the Whitewater was how cool it is to look into the water and see the fish that are or aren’t biting. In the places where it’s clear (and there are a lot of those places), you can see trout of all sizes and I like that because I know they’re in there and thriving. Since July, it’s been noticeable that there are fewer. Obviously I never saw all 10,000 that perished, but I see their absence. Pools that teemed with them last spring have fewer and there are noticeably fewer large ones. Talking with some of the fly-fishing friends I’ve made out there, they see it, too. To paraphrase one man’s comments: What if it happens again this year? Or the next? Will there be any point in stocking the river at all if the watershed is contaminated? And, what does it matter if we use barbless hooks or catch-and-release if thousands can get wiped out in a day? In short, our best management and stewardship won’t matter if the larger threat isn’t addressed.
I was out in Carley State Park last week where I’ve found a new “sweet spot”. I was pulling in rainbow after rainbow out of one particular pool and as I held them in my hand to remove the hooks, looking at their spectacular array of colors, I realized I was feeling guilty. I wasn’t feeling guilty because I was going to keep them—it’s catch-and-release season. Besides, fish for food makes sense and it’s sustainable in moderation. It was because they’re depending on me to protect them and I feel like I can’t do enough. As I worked quickly to remove the hooks and get them back into the water, I found myself getting sad thinking about what happened to all of the fish last summer—the absolutely tragic, unnecessary waste of life.
We need to do something. You don’t have to care about fish or fishing to understand that if the water is toxic for them, it’s toxic for us. How many kids at Whitewater State Park played in the river in the days after that storm? How many wells downstream were affected by the runoff? What had to be present for their gills to appear “fried”?
This is where our leaders and the agencies we depend on to advocate for these issues come in—we need to demand that they act in the interest of the common good when it comes to our water policies. It’s not political to push for the best possible practices to ensure we have clean water. To reasonable people, it’s not an infringement on their rights or freedoms to suggest that moderation be used when it comes to chemicals or that reasonable measures be taken to prevent them from reaching our common water sources. The DNR requires that I buy a license and a special trout stamp if I want to fish the Whitewater, but I’m one person and all of the fish I throw back won’t protect a species’ entire population. I for one resent that the money I’ve spent on trout stamps for species management was completely wasted because so many were killed and no one was held accountable.
I don’t want to feel guilty when I look at a trout, pike, bass or walleye that I’ve caught. I want to feel good, knowing that there are plenty more where it came from. I want to feel good knowing I live in a state that values and protects its abundant lakes and streams and the fish within them. I want to feel good knowing that my state prides itself on its natural resources and that elected officials and our state agencies come together and agree when it comes to standing up for them. And, I want to feel good, knowing that when I purchase my fishing license and trout stamp every year, when I vote and when I advocate, I’m doing it because these are values we all share in Minnesota.