Tracking water quality in the Mississippi Watershed, with MWMO’s Udai Singh

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) has for many years tracked local water quality data for the Mississippi and surrounding watershed in the Minneapolis area. The Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership is currently working with the MWMO on a project to study the ecological impacts of closing the Lock at St. Anthony Falls. But we thought we’d take the time to better understand how they track water quality in Minneapolis by talking with MWMO Water Resources Director Udai Singh.

First, remind us of the origins of the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization is a joint-powers Watershed Management Organization (WMO), organized as part of the Metropolitan Area Surface Management Act that was passed by the legislature in 1982. The cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Lauderdale, Saint Anthony Village, Fridley, Hilltop, Columbia Heights, and Minneapolis Parks and Recreation boards are the current members of MWMO. The Metropolitan Surface Waters Management Act required local units of government in the seven county Metro Area to prepare and implement comprehensive surface water management plan through membership in a WMO. Our first plan was prepared in 1986, but was never officially approved. The second generation plan was completed and approved in the year 2000. Our first staff was hired in fall 2002. We are currently working under our third generation Watershed Management Plan that was approved in 2011.

What is the MWMO’s role in protecting water quality?

Udai Singh

80 percent of our funding goes to put projects on the ground, whether to retain the water on the landscape and infiltrate, or innovative technologies to enhance the quality of the water. And in the MWMO’s case, most of our watershed is a pipeshed, served by storm sewers.

We protect water quality by partnering with member cities. We partner with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, protecting sensitive land along the river that can also bring parks or trail. The MWMO has six areas of excellence: planning, that governs everything and guides us; capital improvement projects, where we put projects in to ground; monitoring, where we collect baseline data; education and outreach, where we go out into the community and work with other members on the message that each one of the people living in the watershed has a role to play; stewardship fund grants, where we provide mini, planning and action grants; and watershed assessment, where we conduct assessment of the watershed to create a scientific base of the knowledge to aid in decision making.

A unique thing for us is we partner with our member cities on things like our Stormwater Treatment Facility in St. Anthony Village. And we’ll bring our research capacity to look at how they can treat stormwater and flow.

How long has the MWMO been collecting data, where, and what’s involved?

MWMO’s water quality monitoring program started in 2005. Doug [Snyder] started as the first staff for MWMO in 2002. In 2005, we hired our first water quality monitoring technicians.

Now we have seven monitoring sites in stormwater pipes. And each of these sites is equipped with an automated water depth and velocity sensor as well as automated sampler to collect water quality sample during the rainoff events. We analyze the sample for range of pollutant indicators like total suspended solids, total phosphorous, heavy metals, and E. coli to name a few. In addition to stormwater monitoring sites, there are five or six places where we have rain gauges, including one rain gauge here at the MWMO. We also monitor three wetlands — Kasota Ponds and two lakes.

In 2012, we started doing a lot more work on the Mississippi River between the upstream boundary of the watershed and Ford Dam. We have collected data to determine if the river is mixed throughout the year or stratified during any time of the year. It is done by taking physical parameter data at seven different sites. Each site has five sampling point and at each sampling point we took data from the surface to the bottom of the river, at every three-foot depth increment. We did this once a week for a year, once every two weeks for the second year, just to see whether the river is mixed or stratified for dissolved oxygen, pH, water temperature, and conductivity. What we found is that the river is always mixed. And now we’re collecting water quality data on the river.

And then, of course, we started collecting information on the bathymetry in partnership with [MRP] as part of LCCMR funded grant. We were already planning for it, but it became very timely because of the LCCMR project and the closing of the Saint Anthony Falls lock. And we’re also monitoring the effectiveness of the projects we’ve put in the ground, to measure how they improve water quality.

What, if any, trends have you noticed over the years in water quality?

In terms of the trends, we have not yet done the analysis. We’ve calculated pollutant loads, but found that we were doing everything manually. So we’re beginning to partner with an organization that has developed a water quality database, and have developed routines to do some of the loading calculus. So hopefully we’ll be able to see what the trends are.

MWMO believes in science-based watershed management – that’s why collecting monitoring data is at the heart of what we do. Anything you do on water quality always starts with monitoring. You find out if they meet the water quality standard or not. If they don’t, then they get put on the impaired water list. Then a water quality improvement analysis called a TMDL study is prepared. Then there’s an implementation plan. And then you monitor it to make sure it does meet the water quality standard.

For the river as such, they don’t just yet have any standard for total suspended solids and total phosphorous. But now, the [move to improve water quality downstream] in Lake Pepin is a driving force to set standards upstream for this part of the river. The river enters our watershed just south of the Coon Rapids Dam, and leaves it near the Ford Dam. We are in a unique position because we’re the only watershed management organization with the river at the heart of our watershed. That’s why we have taken a real interest in improving the river’s water quality between when it enters the watershed boundary, and when it leaves the watershed boundary.

The MWMO has worked with MRP to track changes that might occur as a result of the closure of the lock at Saint Anthony Falls last year. What has been done so far?

We collected data on bathymetry once in 2014, we collected data on it just before the closure of the lock (in mid-2015). We are scheduled to look at it again in June 2016. All the water quality monitoring data we are collecting will be used as a lens for this project, and for the future of the project down the road. We teamed up with the DNR and St. Anthony Falls Lab if they needed field help with their parts of the project, in terms of collecting invertebrate samples or sediment samples. It’s pretty exciting just to get a sense of the state of the water quality.

If there’s one change we could make to improve water quality, what would it be?

One of the things with water quality, as a Ph.D. scientist, and educator at heart, I firmly believe an informed and educated public is essential. We need to reach out to whoever it takes – whether it’s youth, or the broader community.

“I firmly believe an informed and educated public is essential. We need to reach out to whoever it takes — whether it’s youth, or the broader community.”

The thing that is going to make a difference is education and outreach. Michelle Ross on our team works on the outreach and training for professionals. Tammy is out and about in the community, and leads the mini-grants, the small grants we give as a way of educating the public. Michaela is doing great work with youth and community outreach. Just education by itself may not do it, but using our data to educate is essential.

Education about what we can do together, and what each person can do is essential. Unless people have their own personal experiences, sometimes people don’t relate to the issue. One by one you can make a difference, but it has to start with each individual.

You’ve taken a unique path to the MWMO. How does your background inform your work here?

I consider myself a very blessed human being. I grew up up in a small village in the state of Rajasthan in India, and did not have a lot of exposure. Education is the one thing that has given me the opportunity today where I’m sitting next to you and talking to you.

For me, when you turn the tap water on, it hurts me if even half of a glass of that clean water gets converted into waste water. Once it goes down the drain, it becomes waste water and has to go through treatment. People here don’t even think twice; the rest of the world – I’d say two-thirds of the world – don’t have that luxury. For me that is the one thing I tell everybody, that my perspective is so different, how precious the water is.

I grew up on a small farm, so I valued the interrelated resources of air, water, and soil. My bachelor’s degree is in agricultural engineering. And for me, growing up on the farm, there’s an understanding that water isn’t just for drinking, but water is also for irrigation, it’s also for energy production. And soil – whether you are growing crops or trees, you need to know how it is being used, how much is getting eroded. And machines too. Agricultural engineering is the one field that gives you a background in three areas – soil and water, farm machinery, and food processing. For my specialization, I tended to go to soil and water, which combined with water resources and environment engineering here in the United States.

Every time I return to India, I come back renewed and feel how lucky we are, I am always trying to find a way if I can help somebody; there’s a system that has helped me to get where I am. Think about it – who would have thought that a kid growing up in a small village in India will have this opportunity, study in the United States, get a Ph.D., and then also continue to do my part to protect and improve the quality of water. So I don’t take it for granted, and I’m very very thankful.

Banner photo credit: United States Army Corps of Engineers. Public domain image. Photo of Udai Singh courtesy MWMO.

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