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Clearing the muddy Chippewa

Interns, from left, Zach Bothun, Dylan Lines and Colin Wright assisted Paul Wymar, scientist with the Chippewa River Watershed Project, in work to determine the amount of steam bank erosion occurring in the watershed. Erosion from stream banks and farm fields are major sources of the sediment that causes turbidity levels in the river to exceed clean water standards. Submitted photo1 / 2
Erosion from stream banks and farm fields are major causes of turbidity problems in the Chippewa River, especially during periods of high water flows. Submitted photo2 / 2

BENSON -- The Chippewa River continues to carry sediment to the Minnesota River by the dump truck load.

Last year it averaged about 88 tons a day, and in previous years it has been as high as an average of 186 tons, or nine dump truck loads a day, according to data collected by Paul Wymar, scientist with the Chippewa River Watershed Project.

Now comes the real heavy lifting: Finding ways to significantly reduce that load and meet federal clean water standards for the river.

The Chippewa River Watershed Project intends to have its plan in place on how to do that next summer, Director Kylene Olson told attendees at a meeting on Tuesday in Benson.

The plan will use a "carrot'' approach to encourage improvements, but some attendees said regulatory pressures may be coming as well. The state and federal government are seeking ways to reduce the Minnesota River's sediment load, possibly by as much as 50 percent in the next 20 years.

"The bull's eye is the Minnesota River,'' said Patrick Moore, director of Clean Up our River Environment, a citizen's group based in Montevideo. "People need to understand that.''

The meeting launched what Olson hopes will develop into a "stakeholders'' group of landowners and other watershed residents who will work to find ways to address the Chippewa River's problems with sediment. Most of the reaches in the river have been listed as impaired due to the high levels of turbidity.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will establish what are known as total daily maximum loads. In effect, it will set limits on how much sediment the Chippewa River can continue to dump into the Minnesota River.

Years of collecting data in the Chippewa River's sprawling, 1.3 million-acre watershed have provided a good picture of where the sediment is coming from, according to Joe Bischoff of Wenck Associates in Maple Plain.

It's a complicated picture, and influenced greatly by the changing flow levels in the river, he told attendees. Erosion from farm fields and stream banks during moderate- and high-flow levels are major sources of the sediment that cloud the river's waters.

There are plenty of other sources too. There are a few carp-infested and algae-rich lakes -- Shakopee Lake being among the worst -- that contribute to turbidity even when water flows in the river are low.

The challenge for the watershed is that most of the sediment comes from non-point, and consequently unregulated, sources.

Olson indicated that the watershed will continue to promote incentives that help landowners adopt best management practices to reduce erosion. She said that "economic viability'' will be considered in developing the implementation plan.

The director also acknowledged the difficulties of promoting voluntary improvements when they come with costs or interfere with profitable farm practices. There are some sub-basins, she told the attendees, "where we can't get any changes to happen.''

Richard Heimkes, a property owner on Gilchrist Lake, said he has seen all the wrong kinds of changes since he began monitoring water quality as a volunteer nearly 19 years ago.

Heimkes said we may have abused Mother Nature too far.

He expressed frustration about an approach to cleaning up the waterway that has regulated point sources of pollution, but not non-point sources. Property owners along the lake are required to invest $6,000 to $12,000 in septic systems to meet the law. Yet upstream of the lake, 50 head of cattle have been allowed to wade and stand in the water for years without any regulatory action, he said.

Property owners along Lake Pepin and legislators along the lower reaches of the Minnesota River are frustrated, too, and demanding action, according to Moore. The Minnesota River delivers 80 percent of the sediments that are rapidly filling the lake.

He said there are growing calls for the enforcement of laws already on the books.

He cited a case in the Zumbro River watershed where a citizen's campaign led Olmsted County to enforce laws that require vegetative buffers along waterways. The buffers capture sediment and nutrients and can greatly improve water quality.

It's not known how many miles of waterways in the Chippewa River are in violation of public water and ditch laws, according to Wymar.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is in the process of developing its plan for reducing sediment in the Minnesota River, according to Katherine Pekarek-Scott, project manager for the Chippewa River watershed with the MPCA. It's too early to know how that plan will affect the Chippewa River's clean up strategy, she said, but added: "Stay tuned.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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