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Addressing water quality

DNR, watersheds discuss ways to clean up lakes

WORTHINGTON -- Representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and local watershed districts gathered in Worthington Monday afternoon to discuss the state of the state's waters and the work needed to improve or reduce the growing number of impaired lakes, rivers and streams.

Skip Wright, DNR regional hydrologist, said roughly 40 percent of the state's waters are impaired. In southwest Minnesota, it's closer to 90 percent.

The DNR has offered workshops around the state in recent months to discuss water quality and its connection to land use. The agency is in the process of updating and rewriting its shoreland regulations, and with legacy funds now available, Wright said it wants to emphasize water management.

For years, groups have worked to reduce point-source pollution around the state, but in recent history, the amount of sediment (non-point source pollution) clogging up streams and rivers and settling into lakes has become more of an issue.

"The Legacy (fund) is a once in a lifetime opportunity to address some of the non-point source pollution we have in this part of the state," said Wright.

Much of Monday's meeting centered on lakeshores and stream banks and the work both urban and rural property owners can do to reduce the amount of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus that get into the waters.

Rob Collett, shoreland stewardship hydrologist from Hutchinson, said more work needs to be done to keep the water on the soil, instead of running off and carrying sediment and nutrients with it.

He said there are a variety of rain water management programs now available in Minnesota -- from infiltration basins to rain gardens, grass swales and pervious pavements, such as paver blocks.

New funding through Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) is also available on agricultural land to convert buffer strips (established through the Conservation Reserve Program) into permanent easements.

"The most important grasslands are those along the water," Collett said.

Over the years, changing agricultural practices have resulted in fewer pastures and a loss of small grain production due to conversion to row crops. At the same time, urban areas have grown and expanded. Between those rural and urban changes, there is less space for natural water storage.

"We've drained a lot of wetlands, we've drained a lot of lakes, and that's bad," said Collett. In fact, in southwest Minnesota, less than 5 percent of the wetlands that once existed are still on the landscape today, he said.

Collett said tile usage on ag land has pushed more water into rivers and streams, which is bad for the watershed, while it has helped the farmer increase his yields because he has less potential for drown-outs.

The struggle is to find a balance that will benefit both producers and the waters.

Practices such as conservation tillage, rock and closed tile inlets, reestablishing pastures and enrolling marginal land in CRP and RIM will all help.

"We have a responsibility," said Collett. "Minnesota pretty much exports all its water. We send our water to the Great Lakes, the headwaters or to New Orleans. We can't look upstream at a different state -- it's us. If we start talking cumulatively, we can make a difference."

Area watershed districts are already working to make a difference.

Jan Voit, administrator of the Heron Lake Watershed District, spoke of the nine grants her agency is working with to implement projects such as rock inlets, conservation drainage, Best Management Practices (BMPs) and conservation tillage.

In the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District, Stephanie McLain said they are working with federal PL-566 and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to target ag land treatment practices including grass waterways. McLain, who is the NRCS district conservationist in Worthington, also spoke of agency programs that help fund projects such as wildlife habitat, conservation practices and wetlands.

Doug Bos, of the Rock County Land Management office, spoke of the ongoing work in the Rock River Watershed to reduce fecal coliform bacteria. In the midst of TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) implementation, Bos said they are working with livestock and crop producers to complete manure management plans, calibrate solid manure spreaders and meter liquid manure applicators. They are also planning a demonstration plot, field day and education and outreach programs.

In the Rock River Watershed, Bos said 99 percent of the fecal coliform bacteria can be attributed to livestock manure. The watershed encompasses portions of Rock, Nobles, Murray and Pipestone counties.

Dan Livdahl, administrator of the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, said that with the city of Worthington's water supply coming from Lake Bella, much of the watershed's efforts have been focused on land retirement.

"We're doing this because surface water is so closely tied to the quality of the water coming out of the wells," said Livdahl, adding that the district has worked in partnership with the SWCD and NRCS agencies. In addition, OOWD has partnered with the local Pheasants Forever chapter to purchase ag land to reestablish habitat and protect the city's water recharge area.

Phil Nasby, a shoreline habitat specialist with the DNR Fisheries office in Windom, also spoke at Monday's meeting. He encouraged more naturalization of shorelines -- such as the addition of vegetation -- to reduce erosion and benefit fish populations.

Nasby spoke specifically about the northern pike populations in area lakes. An otherwise prolific fish, the pike has struggled in southwest Minnesota waters because of the lack of wetlands and vegetation.

"They need flooded, vegetated lakes (for spawning)," Nasby said. "The Windom Area Fisheries spends a lot of time trying to propagate northern pike and they shouldn't need to. This is something we do because we have to -- anglers want northern pike."

"If we're going to measure differences that we make, we certainly can," he said, adding that more needs to be done to establish healthy shorelines and vegetation."

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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