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State and city laws prohibit river dumping

The bank of the Sheyenne River in West Fargo showing grass clippings and concrete chunks. This backyard was two blocks from a city compost site.

Several years ago I read a published journal written by Maj. Stephen Long, an Army officer stationed at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. The book was a vivid description of his 1823 exploration up the Minnesota River and down the Red River, ending at Fort Garry (near present day Winnipeg).

I ended up loaning out the book to someone and haven't seen it since. But I do recall one particular piece of information which I found intriguing. Near the party's passage of what would be the future Fargo area, Long sent out a scout to report on a river on the Dakota side of the Red. It was the Sheyenne River. The scout returned after a time and told of a clear running river with fine water. Very interesting.

I won't dispute the fine water part. But I wonder about the clarity of the river even back then. There is any number of possibilities of course. It might be that the scout was exaggerating. Maj. Long may have entered the information in his journal erroneously but I doubt that. Or it could be correct, the Sheyenne may very well have been quite a bit clearer than it is today. Whatever the truth of Long's written statement, the Sheyenne River is not a stream a person would consider clear today.

Once settlement occurred, the landscape was quickly altered to fit an existence built around agronomy. Trees were cut, tallgrass prairie was plowed, wetlands were drained and farms sprung up everywhere in the rich valley soils. These practices, which continue today, endow our region with millions of agridollars. But it almost certainly contributes to the siltation of our rivers, the price we pay for our farming lifestyle.

Beyond farming though, there is a very common practice which I personally find distasteful. That is the dumping of waste material into the river from residential landowners. This routine is carried out up and down the river in every town I've been in. It is not uncommon to see mounds of grass clippings reaching into the river from backyards. It's not limited to just grass though. I've seen concrete chunks, waste metal, tree branch bundles, and just about everything imaginable. Some landowners, it seems, treat the river as their own private waste disposal system.

I wondered about the legality of all this and asked Jim Collins, an environmental scientist with the North Dakota Dept. of Health, about it.

"Oh yeah, it's against the law," said Collins, "There are criminal and civil penalties." I did a little poking around and found the appropriate law in the state's Century Code. Even Fargo and West Fargo have statutes specifically addressing this. In the case of West Fargo, it's in Chapter 9-04, Storm Water Management. Section 01, paragraph 44 is titled, "Prohibited Discharge." It states, "...including but not limited to; (a) Debris or other vegetative materials such as grass clippings, vegetative materials, tree branches, earth fill, rocks, concrete chunks, metal..." Fargo's reads virtually the same.

Christine Laney of River Keepers said, "Lots of people don't know it's bad for the river, they think it's natural." What occurs, in the case of grass, is an artificial buildup of plant material laden with pesticides and fertilizers leading to poor water quality and algal growth. "When grass clippings start to decay, they take up oxygen which can kill fish, especially late in the year," said Laney.

Collins echoed the same theme, "We've had areas here in Bismarck where we've had fish kills likely due to grass dumping in bays or backwaters."

River Keepers, in partnership with Cass County Soil Conservation, Southeast Cass Water Resources District and the N.D. Dept. of Health, is kicking off a campaign later this year to address this very issue. It's to be an educational effort consisting of door hangers, brochures and displays, according to Laney.

Unfortunately the habit of river dumping is not limited to the Sheyenne or even North Dakota. I've seen it nearly everywhere I've been from Virginia to California. I'm not sure why. I guess it's part laziness, part heritage (my grandfather did it), and part ignorance. Whatever the reason, for the sake of aesthetics, superior outdoor experiences, and water quality, it would be nice to see this practice cease.