WILLMAR — Despite the upheaval of the coronavirus in 2020, and going into 2021, the natural environment was still in need of protecting and conserving. The Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District had a busy year, even if some of their normal operations were changed due to the pandemic.

Ellie Faber and Rick Reimer from the local Soil and Water Conservation District gave the annual program update to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 16.

"We have multiple programs available in our county to serve the public," Reimer said. "Service programs, cost-share assistance programs, engineering and design capabilities within our office."

The Soil and Water Conservation District was able to complete several projects last year, including water and sediment control, wetland restoration, tree planting and manure pit closures.

"We are always looking for projects," Reimer said.

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One successful project was the Green Lake County Park shoreline and beach restoration project. The beach slope was reshaped, rock was added to reduce wave erosion, a new sand blanket with fabric support was laid and a rock spur bar was constructed into the lake to impact waves that cause shore erosion.

"It was a really rewarding project," Reimer said.

Last year the conservation district also helped plant native grasses and pollinator plants on 1,089 acres across the county.

"Putting the native grass down, it is huge for wind erosion, water erosion," Reimer said. "It is a rewarding program for us."

Invasive species, and trying to reduce their spread, is another aspect of the work the district does. Things such as buckthorn, creeping bellflower and chickpea milk vetch can cause negative effects to the native flora and fauna.

"The list never seems to shrink much. It always seems to get a little bigger every year," Reimer said. "SWCD is trying to get a better handle on those control of these."

Educating the public about soil and water conservation is something the staff members take very seriously. Even with COVID-19, programming was able to continue.

Prior to COVID-19 arriving, the Soil and Water Conservation District was still able to hold its Soil Health Day with Ridgewater College. There were six workshops and a question-and-answer panel with area producers.

"We had over 200 students and several different farms come and enjoy it," Faber said.

The annual statewide poster contest for fourth- and fifth-graders was held, as it was a perfect activity students could do even while distance learning. Braxton Zimmer, a student from Central Minnesota Christian School, was awarded first place in Kandiyohi County and first place in SWCD Area II for his bee-themed poster.

"That was fun to see and a good thing too," Faber said.

There was also Conservation Day last summer at a Willmar Stingers game, where families were able to make seed bombs and bee houses while learning about the importance of pollinators and conservation.

For landowners and farmers, SWCD manages the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program. Staff assist property owners with implementing water conservation measures on their land and becoming a certified site. The program also offers those who participate grant opportunities.

"In 2020 the program definitely took off," Faber said. "We had over a dozen applications, seven certified, and we have several more in the process of being certified."

Faber said she expects the certification program to have another big year in 2021.

There is also a new incentive for farmers to plant cover crops. For a maximum of 25 acres, SWCD will pay $35 per acre for one species of crop or $40 per acre for multiple species. Cover crops can assist with decreasing wind erosion of valuable top soil and help with water quality.

"We are focusing on getting folks that have never tried cover crops," Faber said. "I know it is nerve-racking thing to start off with it."

The conservation district already has a list of projects to be be completed, or at least started, over the next 10 months, including the bank restoration for the Shakopee Creek and planting of living snow fences in several areas. There is also a partnership with the city of Willmar, to convert some park land into prairie-type habitat, part of the Parks to Prairie program.

"We are going to convert some mowable land, that the city has been mowing, to prairie-type habitat with flowers and grasses," Reimer said.

The county commissioners thanked the Soil and Water Conservation District for all the work they did last year and continue to do for the community.

"You were very busy, despite COVID," said Commissioner Corky Berg said. "We do appreciate all the work."