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Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area moving forward

Pilot project to involve irrigators in the Bonanza Valley to help manage groundwater continues to move forward. Now in its fifth year, it aims to assure sustainable use.

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An irrigation rig is shown at work in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area in this West Central Tribune file photo. The Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area is now in its fifth year, with plans to continue moving forward. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

University researchers at the Rosholt Farm in Pope County did what few farmers who irrigate their crops would dare do: They purposely cut back on the water they applied by 25 and as much as 50 percent to measure the impacts to productivity and the bottom line.

Researchers Jeppe Kjaersgaard and Vasudha Sharma shared what they learned with irrigators in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area at a March 24 virtual meeting, held in place of the usual spring clinic for the management area.

Now in its fifth year, the pilot project to create a groundwater management area is making progress toward its goal of sustainable groundwater use in an area running from north of Glenwood to Paynesville. Pope, Stearns, Douglas, Kandiyohi, Meeker and Todd counties comprise much of the area.

One of the state’s first groundwater management areas, it was developed in good part to avoid a crisis. In the previous 25 years, the area saw a 175 percent increase in groundwater permits, almost entirely for agriculture. The groundwater management area’s goals include protecting the aquifers and ecosystem by not negatively impacting surface water, promoting water conservation and water quality, and avoiding well interference and water use conflicts.

The rate at which new permits are being sought for irrigation has slowed since then, in part because much of the area is now irrigated. USDA figures from May of 2015 show that of 89,993 acres cultivated in the area, 74,562 of those acres are irrigated.

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Jason Moeckel, section manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Ecological and Water Resources Division, told the West Central Tribune that there was plenty of skepticism amongst irrigators when the groundwater area project was first launched. Now, he said the relationship that has been forged between the DNR and its agency partners with stakeholders in the area is one of its greatest values.

The conversation that is occurring about groundwater use in the area is one the DNR is committed to seeing continue, Mark Hauck, project manager for the area with the DNR, told those attending the virtual meeting. He said the DNR intends to hold a session later this year to bring stakeholders together to identify goals for the district going forward.

One of the chief objectives is to meet a statutory requirement that groundwater use in the area be sustainable. “Are we in compliance with the statute or have we authorized too much water to be used? That question is still needing to be answered but we’re making progress,” Moeckel told the West Central Tribune.

Ongoing research to identify and map groundwater flow in the area is a big part of the effort to answer the question.

The DNR is currently looking for irrigators in the area to participate in a study this season that is looking at the accuracy of irrigation data, Joy Loughry, with the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Division, told the meeting participants. A study in the Little Rock Creek groundwater management area found that irrigators there were over-reporting their water use by approximately 25 percent. It’s believed that as pumps age, they are not moving as much water as their operators are recording.

Obtaining more accurate information is important to the effort to analyze groundwater flow in the area, according to John Seaberg, a hydrologist with the DNR. He is working to develop a model to better understand how climate and pumping can impact water levels in the system. Some of his recent work looked at how groundwater recharges lakes Amelia and Villard in Douglas County, two popular recreational waters in the groundwater area.

There is growing interest in the Bonanza Valley to increase the supply of groundwater by improving the recharge of the aquifers, project manager Hauck told meeting participants. The information being collected with the help of irrigators has helped the DNR develop a map of the area. To be available on the project’s DNR web page, the map helps identify wetland restorations that would be most likely to recharge aquifers, Hauck said.

Moeckel said he is optimistic that groundwater management areas and the involvement of stakeholders that they make possible will continue to play an important role going forward.

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“Our sense is that Minnesota is not in the emergency room when it comes to the quantity of water,” he said. “We’re in the urgency room, meaning we need to be really careful (to plan) and use science to make good decisions. The more informed those decisions are, the better.”

“Groundwater is important to Bonanza Valley users,” Hauck told participants as he wrapped up the meeting. “The DNR wants users to continue using groundwater to support families and communities,” he said, adding that the state is also committed to making sure the groundwater use is consistent with state statutes for sustainability.

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