WORTHINGTON — Nobles County Pheasants Forever completed last week acquisition of a 56.68-acre parcel of land in the Worthington Wellhead Protection Area that expands on an established wildlife complex in Bigelow Township and continues the quest to improve water quality.

It’s the first acquisition the local chapter has completed with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) as a funding partner. In a pilot program, the state agency awarded a nearly $265,000 Wellhead Protection Partner Grant from the Clean Water Fund to help with the land purchase.

Historically, BWSR has funded the purchase of easements on private lands as a way to target water protection. The new pilot grant program gives the state agency the opportunity to invest in permanent wellhead protection. Nobles County Pheasants Forever partnered with the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District to apply for — and ultimately be awarded — the 50% cost-share grant in the first round.

“We think the work that we’ve done in the Worthington wellhead is a statewide-known super success story,” Nobles County Pheasants Forever President Scott Rall shared. “It’s a grand slam of sorts when it comes to water protection with the work that we’re doing here.”

The newly purchased parcel, located in the 32000 mile of Quine Avenue, south of Worthington, is currently producing a corn crop. The farmer and seller of the land, Jesse Drost, will plant soybeans on the parcel in 2021, and will be seeded to native prairie following that fall’s harvest.

“Soybean stubble makes for a really, really good native grass seedbed,” said Rall, noting that a restoration specialist with Pheasants Forever will oversee the restoration in coordination with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the agency that will become the long-term land manager once the land is restored.

“They will look at the soil types on that property and do separate, distinct seedings of plants to match the soil type and topography on that site,” Rall added.

The newest acquisition, dubbed Pheasant Run 40, is adjacent to Pheasant Run 1. It becomes the seventh addition to the original Wachter Wildlife Management Area, according to Rall.

He said the parcel is equally valuable for both conservation and water protection.

“With this transaction, all the water that flows through there, all the way down to the Bella wellhead, is protected by clean water habitat,” he added.

That’s why Worthington Public Utilities agreed to contribute $60,000 toward the land purchase.

“We’ve been partnering with Pheasants Forever and the (Okabena-Ocheda) watershed district and other entities on numerous acquisitions, concentrating on our wellhead protection area,” said WPU General Manager Scott Hain, noting that their first partnership on a public lands purchase was made in 2006.

In the past 14 years, Hain said each land acquisition in which WPU partnered was to restore land and protect the water in the Lake Bella wellhead.

“It’s a great deal for us,” Hain said. “Our wellhead protection program is kind of the envy of the state and the envy of the region. There are so many that would love partners like this to put land in permanent conservancy. These investments today are going to pay dividends forever.”

While the city of Worthington is now connected to the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, it's blended 50-50 with water from the Lake Bella well field. That, said Hain, makes water protection in the wellhead every bit as important today as it was five or 10 years ago.

“The Lake Bella well field is our closest major water source,” Hain said. “We’re still utilizing it, and we need to protect it.”

Rall said land acquisitions like this latest parcel wouldn’t happen without willing sellers and some value for either wildlife habitat or water quality protection. Nobles County Pheasants Forever, which was organized in 1984, is always looking for parcels considered marginal as farmland, as well as lands that can be joined to build a larger complex for wildlife habitat.

“Nobles County Pheasants Forever is one of the most successful chapters in North America,” Rall said. “We have been a leader in habitat restoration and land acquisition.”

Still, Rall said Nobles County’s 40 Pheasant Run parcels comprise just .63 of 1% of the county’s total land base.

The purchase price of the Drost property was $465,000. In addition to the BWSR grant and WPU contribution, the local Pheasants Forever chapter contributed $10,000. Additional partners, either in funding or in-kind work, include the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, North American Wetland Conservation Act, Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The parcel will be open to public use beginning in the fall of 2021.