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Residents can do more to improve water quality

WORTHINGTON -- Creating a cleaner environment and building a quality water supply may sound like overwhelming -- perhaps even impossible -- tasks.

But according to those who work for the Heron Lake Watershed District (HLWD), every resident can do something to improve land and water quality for future generations. They say that if people living within the watershed could implement one project -- whether it's installing filter strips, reseeding a waterway, enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program or constructing a rain garden -- the district would likely see steady and positive changes.

Established in 1970, the watershed district's primary focus was flood control, according to Melanie Luinenburg, HLWD education coordinator. At the time, the district encouraged land owners to install tile lines.

As time passed, the focus shifted to improving water quality by slowing down water flow and retaining it in ponds to keep sediment from filling the streams and waterways.

Three stream sites within the district are monitored today for sediment loading, phosphorus and nitrates, according to HLWD technician Kelli Daberkow.

"We haven't seen a huge improvement yet, but (the district) covers a large area," Daberkow said.

One major improvement is that the City of Worthington and Swift and Co., came into compliance within the past two years in reducing phosphorus loading. Treated water from the city and Swift flows into Okabena Creek, located in the HLWD.

The HLWD is composed of 472 square miles of land -- including one-third to one-half of Nobles County, Luinenburg said. Remaining land in the watershed includes portions of Jackson, Cottonwood and Murray counties.

The district offers incentives for landowners to implement a variety of programs to benefit the environment and water quality -- incentives above and beyond those available through county Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) offices.

Taking land out of production for conservation efforts comes at a financial cost for crop producers, but Luinenburg hopes the available incentives, as well as the benefits of conserving the soil, make those programs attractive.

"With the farmers, it's always a fine line of walking for them," Luinenburg said. "They want to do the best they can in their farming operation, but they also want to be environmentally aware."

Within the past 10 years, the HLWD has completed 495 projects, including more than 3,000 acres of filter strips and 145 acres of wetland restoration. Those projects help reduce phosphorus content in the water by 2,210 pounds and prevent 1,862 tons of sediment from being lost each year.

Additional programs through the Clean Water Partnership have resulted in the enrollment of 39 grassed waterways, 44 riparian buffers, 23 wetland basins, two waste management systems, a waste storage structure, five stream channel stabilizations, 13 windbreaks, 21 terraces and 168 rock inlets.

"When you have 472 square miles, that's a lot," Luinenburg said. "All the little things that can be done will help a lot."

While a majority of the watershed district comprises agricultural land -- 86 percent -- Luinenburg said city residents can also implement projects to benefit water quality.

Beginning in 2007, Jackson County will implement a water retention program within Heron Lake. By removing some of the town's curbs and creating rain gardens on property adjoining city streets, water will have an extra filter before it reaches the storm sewer system and eventually flows into the lake.

Four rain gardens were established in the county last year by members of the Southwest Star Concept School's greenhouse management program. Most of the gardens are between six and eight inches deep, include a variety of perennials and are typically developed in areas where rain gutters extend from a property.

HLWD district administrator Jan Voit said the filter strip program is most popular among land owners within the watershed district. However, replacement of septic systems is one of the funding programs that would have the most impact on water quality. The district has about $256,000 to help land owners fund a new septic system.

Persons interested in participation in the HLWD programs are urged to contact the district's office, which is located in the Heron Lake Community Building. The HLWD has a technician in the Nobles SWCD office and is working to fill a similar position in Jackson County.

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Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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