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Targeted conservation efforts help clean up state's namesake waterway

Tom Kalahar, Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, helped lead over 50 guests from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, Clean Water Council, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources and legislators on a tour to demonstrate how strategically located conservation practices are improving water quality in the Minnesota River. "We work this landscape hard," Kalahar told his guests. Tribune p...

OLIVIA -- A couple of years ago, a group of paddlers made their way down the Minnesota River as the creeks and tributaries churned and gushed with chocolate-colored waters heavy with the soil washed from upstream fields by a spring rain.

With one exception: As they reached the mouth of Beaver Creek, the paddlers were struck by the clarity of the waters it delivered to the Minnesota River.

What was going on?

The same thing that could be going on throughout the Minnesota River watershed, a point made to over 50 people who paddled the Minnesota River as guests of the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District on July 21. The guests were members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the Clean Water Council, the Board of Water and Soil Resources, Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture, and Minnesota state legislators. They are responsible for recommending, deciding or overseeing how millions of dollars in Legacy and lottery revenues will be spent to preserve and protect the outdoors.

"We are starting to see a difference here," said Cory Netland, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, as he stood before the guests along Renville County Ditch 37, the start of the Beaver Creek watershed.

The paddlers' report about Beaver Creek had led Netland and Joe Stangel, from the DNR, to analyze why this waterway in the heart of Renville County's hardest-worked farm lands could run so clear.

They found that past conservation efforts to plant grass buffers in riparian areas, as well as in ravines and erosion-prone areas, had been successful in reducing sediment loads by more than 50 percent in the watershed.

"The point is, when you target it in the right areas it can make a huge difference," said Netland, as he and the guests stood on a grassy buffer alongside the ditch.

Overall, some 5,480 acres or 4.5 percent of the lands in the watershed are enrolled in conservation programs. Other grass-covered lands bring to 7,480 acres the total of perennial cover in the watershed, or 6.1 percent of the total land mass, according to Netland.

This sort of success story could be duplicated throughout the agricultural lands of the Minnesota River basin, according to Tom Kalahar, a 31-year-veteran of Renville County's conservation efforts through its SWCD.

Renville County is number one in the state when it comes to producing corn and other row crops, but it also is a leader in the state when it comes to enrolling lands in perpetual conservation easements, said Kalahar.

He told the visitors that farmers are willing participants in programs that benefit water quality. The programs must be the equal of the economic realities that farmers face, and there needs to be many different options to match the varied needs of producers, he said.

"We work this landscape hard," said Kalahar, pointing to shoulder-high rows of corn that filled fields right to the edge of the public right-of-way. Kalahar told the visitors that 85 percent of the land in Renville County was classified as wetland soils before the arrival of agriculture. A mosaic of seasonal and shallow wetlands, and prairie covered the entire county.

Today, about 99 percent of the grasslands and nearly as large a percentage of the wetlands are gone, noted Kalahar. Restoring a small percentage of each, in the right places, can improve the river while also benefitting our agricultural economy, he told the guests.

"We cannot fix that (the river) without fixing this to some degree," he said, pointing to another riparian area where corn was growing right to the very edge of a steeply-banked portion of the ditch.

The visitors to Renville County said they were impressed by their trip down the Minnesota River. They were equally impressed by the improvements that conservation programs -- in particular the Conservation Enhancement Reserve Program or CREP -- have already made possible. They heard lots of support for continuing to move forward in protecting what is considered the most important natural resource in the southern half of the state.

"We cannot express to you how important we think the Minnesota River Valley is," said Gene Jeseritz, DNR fisheries, while addressing the group.

Tom Cherveny

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

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