Water Quality

Water quality refers to the relative ability of water to support the health and other needs of people and animals. This page includes topics related to the health of rivers, groundwater and other water: Surface Water, Sanitary Sewers and Septic Systems, Stormwater and Groundwater.

General Info

rowing-on-mississippiMinnesota’s lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater are valuable public resources, providing drinking water, recreational and tourism opportunities, wildlife habitat, water for agriculture and industrial uses, and more. Protecting our water resources also protects human health, our ecosystems, and the economy.

Water pollution laws—including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act—exist to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters by preventing point and nonpoint pollution sources, and to ensure safe drinking water for the public. Federally, requirements are administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with specific local and regional issues and oversight by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and may extend to watershed management organizations or to other local entities. 

Pollution of waters can occur when wastewaters are mixed with waters, or when rainwater and other precipitation comes into contact with surfaces (and pollutants) and drains into waterways.

Contaminated water moving through the soil profile can impact groundwater, which accounts for most of the drinking water supply in Minnesota.

Pollutants such as phosphorus, bacteria, sediments, nitrates and other chemicals may be present in sanitary/domestic sewage, industrial wastewater, and non-point sources such as storm sewers, failing septic systems, and runoff from construction sites, animal feedlots, paved surfaces, and lawns. The National Water Quality Inventory finds that up to 40% of Minnesota’s water cannot be used for its intended purpose because of an identified impairment. Nonpoint sources represent the largest combined threat (an estimated 86%) of the state’s water pollution.

At the University, the Environmental Compliance Division of DEHS administers the regulatory requirements and permit oversight associated with water quality.

University Water Quality

The University conducts a wide range of activities as part of its research and teaching mission that use and generate wastewater. The primary source of wastewater at University locations is domestic sewage, but can also include a variety of wastewater/s from:

  • Production-related maintenance activities (e.g., cage-washing, equipment, facilities cleanup)
  • Cleanup or other by-products from the production of food and other products (e.g., dairy, grain, meats, forest and mining product research and production, aquaculture research)
  • Operational-type wastewater (e.g., cooling water, water pumped for structural integrity, treatment of water, filter washes, flushing of heating/cooling systems, cleaning processes, irrigation water, waste management)
  • Non-point source water running off of surfaces with potential contaminants (e.g., parking lots, roads, buildings, stockpile areas, and animal confinement areas) 
  • Diversion, movement or pump-out of excess groundwater to maintain the structural integrity of University buildings and resources

These wastewaters are typically discharged either to the sanitary sewer—where it is treated to remove organic materials and solids before it enters waterways—or to a waterway via the storm sewer system, if it is clean enough. Some wastewaters cannot be disposed of by discharge—mainly because of inorganic pollutants—and must be transported off-site for treatment at a facility that can treat the wastewater.

Environmental Compliance Division staff reviews proposals for water usage and discharges and determines which requirements, policies and/or best management practices are applicable to the particular activity or piece of equipment. If permitting or licensing is required, the permit/license must be in place prior to the discharge or activity beginning, including any required measures, procedures, or best management practices. Permitting is coordinated by Environmental Compliance staff. Documentation of regulatory determinations and other compliance activities is maintained by Environmental Compliance staff.