Focusing on a watershed, pilot project makes case more convincing

Bruce Albright
Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, stands on a field channel in a farmer's corn field outside Barnesville, Minn., on Friday, Sept. 2, 2011. In the absence of proper drainage, top soil has been replaced by sediment, which will ultimately reach the Buffalo River.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

A few miles south of Moorhead, Bruce Albright has been watching a farmer fight a losing battle with erosion for years. In the middle of a cornfield, a twisting gully stretches for nearly a mile.

"It's even taken the clay away so we're down to the rocks," says Albright, manager for the Buffalo Red River Watershed. "I would bet next spring again this will be all washed out."

That's a problem, not just for this farmer, but because all that soil and attached nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen diminish water quality as far as hundreds of miles north in Lake Winnipeg.

To deal with it, Albright is part of a pilot project that stands to change how Minnesota evaluates water quality and takes a new approach to involving people in efforts to fix problems like this one.

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Identifying similar trouble spots is part of a watershed approach to water quality. Instead of examining one lake or stream, this project is studying the entire watershed, a network of dozens of lakes and streams that flow to the Red River.

That, in turn, helps pinpoint problems and set priorities in ways convincing to landowners.

For decades, the government encouraged farmers to drain wetlands and dig ditches. Now in many cases, they're being asked to do the exact opposite and many are skeptical, Albright said. So far, this farmer isn't convinced he needs to do anything to stop the erosion.

But about 50 miles east, near Lake Park, is another cornfield alongside busy U.S. Highway 10. This is not flat Red River valley farmland, but rolling sandy hills. And there are no gullies across this corn field.

That's because the farmer, Barry Nelson, agreed to install more than a dozen sediment basins on this square mile of land. A small berm catches rainfall before it rushes down the hillside and the water is slowly released through an underground drain tile.

Nelson says with above average rainfall in recent years he was repairing deep gullies several times a year.

"I'm in line to do more and every farmer around here that's witnessed it wants more."

"We almost gave up on a couple of them because we couldn't keep ahead of the rains. And now, we haven't had a washout over the top of those since then ... We've had five-inch rains out here and they've held really well." Nelson worked with the Becker County soil and water conservation service to install the sediment basins. He also planted buffer strips of native vegetation along ditches and restored a wetland in the middle of the field. Grant money from the Minnesota Legacy Fund paid for 75 percent of the cost. Nelson estimates he and his brother spent about $25,000 out of pocket on erosion control projects for this square mile of land.

For Nelson, seeing is believing.

"I'm in line to do more and every farmer around here that's witnessed it wants more of those in our fields. Because it really improves our production and our efficiencies."

The result has been better crop yields, and a more efficient operation because he's not wasting time repairing washouts across the field.

This project represents two important lessons for state and local officials. Farmers like Nelson trust the advice of local conservation officials more than state agencies. And they're much more willing to try a new idea if they can see that it works.

Those lessons are reshaping the conversation about improving water quality here.

Watershed manager Albright said having data from the entire watershed allows engineers to pinpoint a trouble spot and then talk with farmers about how to fix it.

"They can take that and go sit at his kitchen table and say, 'According to our work you've probably got a gully there that could be fixed. We can help you fix that. And oh, by the way, if you do this it's going to benefit you in the long run because your topsoil is no longer leaving your field."

That makes the solution local and relevant, not just part of a big water quality problem, Albright said.

"If I say we have to reach turbidity of 25 NTUs, they don't care about that."

Most watershed residents who responded to a survey agreed clean water is important to quality of life and economic stability of a community. Nearly half agreed with the statement "It's important to protect water quality even if it costs me more", although fewer farmers than non-farmers agreed with that.

The survey found cost was the least important reason for landowners not taking steps to improve water quality. The top two reasons are not being able to see a demonstration project, and not having enough information about specific land use practices.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientists are also trying to change the way they work with farmers.

MPCA planner Molly MacGregor says she's learned that she has to see water quality from a farmer's perspective.

As a scientist, she's focused on water quality measurements like turbidity.

"If I go in and say we have to do this because we have to reach turbidity of 25 NTU's, they don't care about that. If we talk about we want to come up with a system that allows you to use this field to its optimum value, now I'm talking a language they're interested in."

And that means the conversation can be about solutions instead of arguing about regulations.

A key component of this watershed approach is getting local residents involved. While many of the water quality issues here are related to erosion from farm fields, lakeshore residents who mow lawns to the lakeshore and city residents who overfertilize lawns or dump grass clippings in storm sewers also contribute to degraded water quality.

The watershed approach to examining water quality is now being rolled out across the state. In addition, the MPCA plans to do intensive monitoring of each watershed in the state once every 10 years.

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