Hope Springs Eternal for the Cedar River
As you read this post, you’ll see mention of Joe Hennager, president and co-founder of Blue Planet Green Living. We’d like you to know that writer Joe Frisk is an independent freelancer, who mentioned Joe’s activities regarding the Iowa River independently of any editorial influence from us. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
I remember the summer of 1967, when I fished the Cedar River for the first time, accompanied by my twin sister and older brothers. Against the backdrop of the Hormel packing plant, cane poles in hand, we caught bullheads, bluegills, and rock bass off North Main Street in Austin, Minnesota, population around 27,000 at the time. I also remember the dirty water and the smell.
That afternoon, a tired and hungry not-yet-seven-year-old, I sat at the supper table with questions for my parents: Why is the river so dirty? Can something be done about it? Why would anyone want to live in a town with a polluted river running through it? Does anyone care? They are questions I have asked repeatedly, since that first day of fishing over 40 years ago.
Settlers Claim the Land
In 1853, Austin Nichols staked a claim on land that would soon bear his name, located along the banks of the Red Cedar River in what became Southeast Minnesota’s Mower County. At the time, the river teemed with trout. Predators abounded, stalking their prey; whitetail deer, bison, elk, and many other animals roamed the region. In 1841, the father of Sioux leader Little Crow guided a hunting party here.1
The land, known as oak savanna, was a tangle of underbrush and tall prairie grasses, making travel difficult. Nichols, a hunter and trapper, followed Indian foot trails and animal trails paralleling the river to enter the area from Iowa Territory, while other settlers followed the Red River Trail.2
Growing up, we called the river the Red Cedar, the name found on Joseph Nicolette’s 1843 map of the Upper Mississippi Basin. Nicolette explained in his writing that the river was named for the cedar trees along the sandy banks of the lower course.3 The trees were junipers, mistakenly referred to as red cedars by early settlers in Iowa Territory.
In Austin the name was given to a hotel, the Red Cedar Inn. To this day, I have found no “cedars” on the Minnesota stretch of river, but they were said to have once adorned this upper stretch in great numbers.4 Later, the river became known simply as the Cedar, the name most often used today and found on maps dating back to 1876, as well as in writing dating to 1866.
Three streams form the headwaters of the river, with the main branch located about 25 miles northeast of Austin near Hayfield, Minnesota. North of Austin, clear, cold springs feed the river. The Cedar runs south and east into Iowa, some 329 miles, where it joins the Iowa River on its way to the Mississippi.
The Price of Progress
In 1854, Nichols built the first dam across the river — at least the first in Minnesota Territory — to provide water power for a sawmill he would build the following year.6 The mill, though not a large operation, helped fuel growth of the new settlement. It also signaled the onset of changes that would damage the river for generations to come.
Aided by the river, the wealth of game, and rich soil, the settlement quickly grew. Farmers lifted prairie sod, planted crops, and removed trees for housing. Corn and hog production flourished, along with an emerging butchering industry, and in 1891, Hormel Foods was born. Bear in mind, change came gradually; but within 40 years, Hormel was a thriving company with a formidable workforce — and water pollution had already become a concern. By 1930, Hormel was actively engaged in research to chemically treat their waste water entering the Cedar, with minimal results.7
Farmers spread manure over fields as fertilizer, which ran into the river after rainfall. Local residents and industries dumped wastes into the river. Pollutants and soil washed downstream, out of sight and mind, ignored as a price of progress.
In the early to mid 1960s, engineers rerouted the course of the river on the north end of town. They filled in the land, and people built businesses and housing upon it. Then, in 1978, the river reclaimed its natural course, flooding North Main — another price of “progress.”
The river has flooded periodically during its history, including floods in 1908, 1916, 1925, and twice in 1978. Since the 1978 events, the river has flooded three times: in 2000, 2004, and 2008. All three of these floods affected my current abode a block from the river. Local wisdom holds we’re experiencing a “hundred-year flood” every four years. With $10 million damage during the 2004 flood, the people of Austin are getting serious about flood control. The city is constructing berms and removing houses within the flood plain. Recognizing the importance of preventing runoff in reducing flooding and improving water quality, the Cedar River Watershed District Board (CRWD) is also taking action.
Diagnosing the Problems, Working toward a Cure
The CRWD first met in May of 2007 and has, among many goals, the reduction of flooding in Austin and improvement of water quality.8 The Board received a grant to study the watershed and are in the process of identifying and monitoring problem areas. According to Bev Nordby, Administrator/District Manager, the Watershed District and the Soil and Water Conservation Offices are co-located, aiding the process of educating area farmers about runoff- and erosion-reduction strategies.
In addition to their educational efforts, the CRWD is in the second year of monitoring watershed quality. Last year, due to little rainfall, contaminants were “not too bad,” wrote Ms. Nordby. Current testing shows higher levels of pollutants are entering the river from northwest of Austin. Monitoring is crucial, as it allows for diagnosis of river problems, rendering a cure possible. The Cedar River is fortunate to have a watershed board looking closely at problems and educating the public on a fix.
Funding allowing for monitoring on the Cedar came from the Clean Water Legacy Act of 2006, positive action by the State of Minnesota to address the state’s impaired waters. The state legislature appropriated nearly $25 million to increase activities such as monitoring, assessment, and restoration projects. According to the Legacy website, “Minnesota has a proud legacy of clean, abundant water; it’s a critical foundation block in the state’s economy and way of life. But even more importantly, Minnesotans want polluted waters restored and the state has embarked on a path to cleaning up its waters.”
On June 23, 2003, Governor Pawlenty wrote, “More so than any other state, the quality and quantity of water in Minnesota is central to our way of life. It helps define who we are and what we value.”9 It’s gratifying to see Minnesota moving in a positive direction to document and clean up impaired water. The people downstream will be equally grateful.
Affecting Downstream Neighbors
Everything that goes into the Cedar in Minnesota ends up in Iowa, including flood waters. In Cedar Rapids, population 124,000, the 2008 flood destroyed a large part of the city, damaging 5,000 homes and over 300 public buildings.10 The flood illustrated the necessity of wetland restoration and other runoff reduction strategies along the full length of the river.
Long before this catastrophe, pollution was a growing concern. Prior to 1963, Cedar Rapids drew its water directly from the river, but taste and odor issu es necessitated a move to the use of wells running parallel to the river. Currently, high levels of nitrate, the result of farm runoff from all along the river, render the river water unfit for use in drinking.11 High nitrate levels in water can interfere with the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen, giving infants a bluish appearance and breathing difficulty.
Algae blooms often occur in the presence of high nitrate levels. This can result in extreme fluctuations in oxygen levels, with high oxygen levels during the day and low levels at night when oxygen-consuming bacteria feed on decaying algae, a difficult environment for aquatic life.12 Herbicides are also showing up in Iowa stretches of the river, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) suggests these problems will persist until and unless the public decides clean water is worth pursuing.
The Cedar enters into the Iowa River 20 miles from the Mississippi. For 25 years, Joe Hennager has lived two blocks from the Iowa and witnessed its decline. He notes that in 2007, the environmental group, American Rivers, named the Iowa the third most endangered river in America. Joe attributes the majority of the problem to hog lots and the fecal wastes they produce that are dumped on fields and end up choking out life in the river and on downstream. He wrote about this sorry situation in an online article entitled Porked Off! A Critical Look at Iowa’s Water Quality. He points out we do not need to take an us-versus-them approach to cleaning up farm wastes. Grassy buffer areas surrounding fields can trap toxins and greatly decrease runoff and soil erosion while providing wildlife habitat. A win-win situation.13
Or is it? Retired Professor Emeritus Jim Baker of Iowa State University believes there are few win-win situations involved in reducing runoff and erosion. He warns of high costs and great effort that will be necessary to reduce pollution. He believes it is counterproductive to paint a rosy picture and then disappoint the public when efforts fall short.14
The problems on the Cedar and Iowa rivers are as interconnected as the rivers themselves and should be addressed together. It will take a national effort, starting with awareness of the problems and dissemination of knowledge needed to deal with them. Proof this is more than a local problem is found in a link Joe provides to the NASA website showing the Dead Zone in the Mississippi Delta region. Along the rivers, from state to state, we must work together. On the Iowa River, Joe Hennager is doing his part to raise awareness, as the CRWD is doing on the Cedar.
Industry can help out by treating water before discharging it into the river. Hormel partners with the city of Austin to treat its waste water. According to the Hormel website, “Before wastewater is sent to a city treatment plant or is discharged into a waterway, wastewater from our facilities is always treated so it meets government-approved levels.”15 We do not have to boycott pork, as Joe Hennager has done , if the hog production industry will take responsibility and end practices that pollute the water.
North of Austin sits a coal-burning power plant run by Austin Utilities. Coal plants are notorious for their harmful emissions, especially carbon dioxide, but mercury is also emitted by these plants and can contaminate water. Mercury in water ends up in fish and the people who eat them, a national health issue that cannot be ignored. Installing devices called scrubbers can reduce emissions of harmful chemicals by up to 90%.
In an email from Alex Bumgardner, Power Production Director of Austin Utilities, I learned that the Austin plant, due to reduced production, released only 2.25 pounds of mercury into the air in 2008, a significant reduction from the 6.7 pounds emitted in 2006. EPA reporting shows no mercury was discharged directly into the river.16 The plant does not currently utilize scrubbers but stays well within environmental standards.
Residents too must make the sacrifices necessary to clean up the river. In some areas north and east of Austin, straight pipes dump raw sewage into the river or into streams leading to the river, the result being unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria (E. coli) and water unfit for recreation. No wonder the swimming holes on the Cedar are long abandoned! In the 1920s and 30s, the North Main area of the Cedar was graced by a sandy swimming beach. Today, there’s a parking lot for the city swimming pool.
Some residents are ignorant of the problem or just apathetic. We need everyone on board and the rest of the country will follow, as clean water is vital to health. Recently, residents of Woodhaven, a small housing addition north of Austin, voted for annexation into the city and will hook up with the city sewer system. The residents of Nicholville, to the east of Austin, are getting a new septic system. Their raw sewage will no longer end up in the Cedar.
All parties are in agreement on the necessity of curtailing farm runoff, industrial wastes, and raw sewage dumping. This will not be realized until problem areas are identified, through monitoring, a task best accomplished by organized efforts such as those of the CRWD. Once problems are pinpointed, farmers, industry, and residents can take steps needed to alleviate them, such as restoring wetlands, building grassy buffer zones, and treating waste water. In Minnesota, those in need of financial assistance can apply for grants and/or loans. Cleaning the upper Cedar could be used as a model for cleanup efforts in Iowa and elsewhere, leading to restoration of the Mississippi and other large rivers that suffer from polluted streams flowing into them.
The Reason We Are Here
Researching this story has confirmed what I suspected all along: The river is the reason we are here. It is dirty due to unchecked runoff of pollutants and soil and the dumping of raw sewage. Most people do care and choose to live here in spite of the pollution, holding jobs and building family history.
With increased awareness and a tremendous effort, the river can come back. It won’t be as pristine as Austin Nichols found it, but it could teem with healthy fish and be clean enough for canoeing and other recreation. It is fed by cold, clean spring water, and people are interested in its future. It was polluted over time and will heal in time, though I wish the public would feel a heightened sense of urgency.
I still fish the Cedar River, and the bullheads, bluegills, and rock bass abound. I caught a 19” smallmouth bass off North Main, and largemouth bass are thriving in the Mill Pond. Father Joe Fogel fly fishes the Cedar, from Austin, Minnesota to Osage, Iowa and has had success with smallmouths. Crappies and channel cats are doing fine. Walleyes, recently stocked by the DNR, are growing fast. And water clarity, while still poor, is better than in the past.
The Cedar is sick, no doubt about it, but I sense we may have reached a turning point. From the Cedar River Watershed District Board on downstream to Joe Hennager, Robert Frost would sum it up: “Men work together…whether they work together or apart.” The river can come back! Working together, we can make it happen.
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1. Jean and John Adams, Tales of Mower County (Austin, MN: Jean & John Adams, 1949), 11.
2. Richard Hall, From His Name…Austin (Adams, MN: Night Owl Press, 1991), 17-21.
3. Joseph Nicolas Nicollet and John Torrey, Report Intended To Illustrate A Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River (Washington: Blair and Rives, Printers, 1845) P. 22. Online book from the Minnesota Historical Society archives.
4. Jean and John Adams, op. cit.
5. EconomicExpert.com. Discusses sources of the Cedar River
6. Jean and John Adams, op. cit.
7. H. O. Halvorson, A. R. Cade, W. J. Fullen. “The Precipitation of Proteins in Packing House Wastes by Super-Chlorination.” The Journal of Physical Chemistry. 1932.
10. Cedar Rapids Commemorates Anniversary of Devastating Iowa Flood. City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 6-12-2009.
11. Riverbank Filtration Case Studies. 2006
12. Water’s the Matter. Measuring Nitrates and Their Effects On Water Quality. From the Texas A & M University website:
13. Joe Hennager. Online article Porked Off! 3-16-2009.
14. Jim Baker, Experience from the Cedar River TMDL Downloadable document, “Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico: Implications and Strategies for Iowa.” 10-16-2008.
14. Hormel Foods, “On Water and Wastewater.”
16. US EPA. Toxic Release Inventory- Envirofacts Report. April, 2009.