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Addressing water quality

BREWSTER -- Since purchasing land on the far southwest corner of East Graham Lake more than five years ago, Mark and Julie Versteeg have been fixing up a century-old farmhouse, renovating a machine shed to access great views of the lake and improving habitat for the hordes of critters and creatures that call the wildlife mecca home.

The results are better than the Versteegs could have imagined. The 40-acre parcel is a retirement home for the former Twin Cities couple, and more than half of their property caters to deer, pheasants, ducks and songbirds.

The Versteegs moved here, to Section 27 of Graham Lakes Township, about two and a half years ago and joined forces almost immediately with the Heron Lake Watershed District to improve water quality and wildlife habitat on East Graham Lake. Ross Behrends, watershed technician, had proposed a sediment basin on the Versteeg property to meet both water quality and habitat goals, as well as to slow and filter water from more than 500 acres of land in the Heron Lake Watershed flowing into the lake through ag drainage tile.

"With agriculture being so productive, it's not always feasible for us to treat the water on those valuable acres," said Behrends, adding that the Versteeg site was optimal because it is located in an environmentally-sensitive area.

"(Their) land is located right on the stream that goes into East Graham," Behrends said. "By diverting the water into a sediment pond, it slows the water up."

As the water slows, the sediment sinks to the bottom of the pond, carrying pollutants with them.

Since the pond was completed in 2009 on the Versteeg property, the pollutants flowing into East Graham have been noticeably reduced.

"We've seen increased water quality," said Behrends, who cautioned that the results can easily change from year to year based on precipitation.

"The general trend, since we began measuring water clarity in 1992, is that we've seen considerable improvement," he added.

The Versteegs -- both admittedly fans of nature and the environment -- said the sediment basin project is good for the lake and benefits property owners in the area.

"There's quite a bit of tiling that goes into the lake," said Mark. "(The sediment basin) is something to just slow the water down."

The basin is one of 11 funded by the Heron Lake Watershed District since 1996 as it works with willing landowners to complete projects to benefit water quality. In addition to the sediment basins, the district has restored more than 300 acres to wetlands -- all in an effort to reduce flood damage.

The basin on the Versteeg property has a maximum depth of nine feet, and was established within an existing creek.

The Versteegs then installed a 350-foot filter strip around the pond to filter water entering from the upland areas, as well as provide floodplain treatment and storage during flood events.

The filter strip is now considered a permanent easement, as the 12.9 acres it covers was enrolled in Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program II.

CREP is a combination of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Reinvest in Minnesota, which provides landowners with a one-time RIM payment and 15 years of CRP payments to keep the land out of agricultural production forever.

The Versteegs seeded the filter strip in a combination of grasses and forbs.

"We put a couple of wildflower mixes in as well, and a couple of food plots," Mark said.

He estimates that 26 acres of their 40-acre site have been transformed through conservation practices.

That's approximately the same number of acres that were used for row crop production before the Versteegs bought the parcel.

"The soil types here aren't as conducive to farming," he added.

Without financial assistance from the Heron Lake Watershed District, the Versteegs say they wouldn't have been able to do all of the conservation-minded projects they did.

The HLWD provided a 75 percent cost-share for installation of the sediment basin, and paid a $200-per-acre incentive for the land enrolled in CREP II.

"That was definitely enticement," Mark said.

"It was an easy decision for us," added Julie. "(The projects have) attracted pheasants, deer and songbirds."

"It's almost like a miniature African safari out here with all of the tracks that have been down by the pond," Mark said.

The Versteegs have also ventured into other projects on their own, including planting an orchard of apple, peach, pear, plum, apricot and cherry trees.

While all of the trees are rated for this growing range, Mark said he and Julie are skeptical all will one day produce fruit.

Through cooperation with the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Versteegs also planted trees -- primarily cedar and Black Hills spruce -- near the sediment pond.

"We want to do more experimental projects," Mark said. "There's only so much you can do with 40 acres.

"We're not going to change the world with what we're doing," he added. "Our theory is, regardless of the programs, I don't want to see any more crops on this farm.

"We don't have any children, so this is our way of giving back," Mark said.

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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