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DNR gathers data on water cycle in Bonanza Valley

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Erynn Jenzen, left, and Brenda Stauffer make regular visits to weather stations such as this one, on the North Fork of the Crow River north of Brooten, to verify the data being collected. The two Minnesota Department of Natural Resource employees demonstrated on Thursday the work they do to collect data in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area to farmers and news reporters at the site. 1 / 6
Mark Hauck2 / 6
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Irrigation is important to crop production in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area, which includes much of Stearns, Pope, Douglas and Kandiyohi counties. This unit is watering a soybean field north of Brooten. 3 / 6
Grant Anderson4 / 6
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Erynn Jenzen, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, holds a device that she places in high flowing rivers to obtain precise information on flow rates. It's all part of an extensive effort to gather data on the water cycle in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area to make possible informed decisions in the future on water usage. Jenzen and others with the DNR demonstrated their work to farmers and news reporters north of Brooten on Thursday. 5 / 6
Tom Cherveny / Tribune The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has developed a high-tech network of observation wells, weather stations and gauges to understand the water cycle in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area. It also requires lots of ground truthing by DNR professionals such as Erynn Jenzen, who is showing how she checks on a river gauge measuring flow in the North Fork of the Crow River north of Brooten. 6 / 6

BROOTEN — It requires a network of high-tech weather stations, monitoring wells and river gauging stations to understand the dynamics of the water cycle in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area.

It also takes a couple pairs of good waders and winter boots.

The waders and boots belong to Brenda Stauffer and Erynn Jenzen. They slosh through muddy streams or in the winter, walk atop them to auger through the ice. Stauffer and Jenzen, both with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, are among those who provide the direct observations feeding the sophisticated apparatus the DNR has been using for nine years now to collect data on the water cycle in the groundwater management area.

It's one of only three groundwater management areas created in the state to date.

Stauffer and Jenzen and other DNR personnel demonstrated their work for a gathering of farmers and reporters Thursday on the North Fork of the Crow River north of Brooten. The data collection taking place in the management area is extensive: There are 72 monitoring wells relaying data every hour on groundwater levels, for example.

"There's a lot going on here,'' said Greg Kruse, the DNR's supervisor for the monitoring program. "We want to have the best information available to make decisions on.''

Those decisions could ultimately affect farmers in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area, which includes much of Stearns, Pope, Douglas and Kandiyohi counties. As of May 2015, it was calculated that 75,562 acres of the 89,993 acres of cropland in the Bonanza Valley sand and gravel aquifer area are irrigated. There are 1,103 active groundwater appropriation permits in the area, according to information from the DNR.

Grant Anderson is among those permit holders. He came to see how the DNR is collecting data. His family grows corn, soybeans, sugar beets and kidney beans along with raising hogs and cattle. Any possible regulations would directly impact their operation, Anderson explained.

His father is part of an advisory group working with the DNR. "We're just as concerned with the sustainability of the aquifer and groundwater management as anyone because it is our lifeblood, to support and sustain our farm,'' said Grant.

The number of permits for irrigation in the area rose by 175 percent in the past 25 years, or five times as much as the state average. The demand for new permits has slowed but continues, according to information presented Thursday.

The rise in permit numbers led to the creation of the groundwater management district. Among its first goals is to gather data to develop a model of the water cycle in the area, and especially the interaction of groundwater use and surface water.

It's all about assuring the sustainability of the groundwater resource. The DNR recognizes the importance of the groundwater to the economy of the area, said Mark Hauck, community assistance specialist with the DNR's ecological and water resources division.

He pointed out that the DNR is also responsible for protecting against any negative impacts of irrigation on ecological systems in the area, such as wetlands and streams. And, it is responsible for making sure the groundwater is available for future generations.

It usually requires at least 10 years of data collection before a model can be developed. The challenge in this case is that the last nine years have been wet years.

"It is a very, very complex system,'' said Ethan Jenzen, area hydrologist with the DNR's Spicer office. The DNR is committed to ongoing data collection and developing an adaptive model that will take into account any new information. It is also committed to making the process as open and transparent as possible, Jenzen said.

Increased irrigation in the area has caused bigger dips in water levels in the aquifers, but to date, it appears the water levels are returning to normal in the off-season, according to Hauck. That's not the case in some other areas of the state, he added.

Farmers with appropriation permits are required to report their usage every year. With an increase in the number of permits, there is more use. But Jenzen noted that the DNR is also seeing irrigators adopting more conservation practices and working together to reduce their water usage.

Anderson said his family has converted its irrigation units to reduce water flow, and even installed its own weather stations in the fields. The irrigation units are hooked up to mobile phones and should it rain in the middle of the night, Anderson can turn them off without lifting his head from his pillow.

He said his family is ahead of the curve in terms of adopting conservation technology, but he believes others will be following.

He supports the data collection the DNR is doing, but added that it will be important that the process is long-term and takes into account the natural cycles in nature and climate.

The network of monitoring wells, weather stations and river gauges are all intended for the long-term, as is the commitment to boots on the ground data collection, according to Hauck.

"We're getting more snapshots in time,'' said Erynn Jenzen as she explained the work she and Stauffer do.

Tom Cherveny

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

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