Southwest Minnesota: Land of impaired waters

WORTHINGTON -- When Gov. Mark Dayton took the stage at the Minnesota Newspaper Association's annual convention last month, it was within hours of his announcement that vegetation buffers would not be required on private ditches.The decision, he s...

WORTHINGTON - When Gov. Mark Dayton took the stage at the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s annual convention last month, it was within hours of his announcement that vegetation buffers would not be required on private ditches.
The decision, he said, was necessary to get support from Republican legislators for bonding money he will seek for Department of Natural Resources and Board of Water and Soil Resources programs.
During his brief comments, Dayton said the state’s deteriorating water quality is, at worst, a crisis, particularly in western, southwest and southern Minnesota.
“In some parts of Minnesota, it’s so bad it’s unsafe for human consumption and recreation and no longer supports aquatic species,” he said, blaming individuals who “do whatever they want, dump whatever they want and believe whatever they want - and we should just let it happen.
“I hear that’s the way it is - that’s the way it is in greater Minnesota,” Dayton said. “It’s the way it is because we’ve let it become that way, and it will continue to be that way until citizens are aware of how seriously at risk their health is.”
Some are now asking whether southwest Minnesota’s water is really as bad as Dayton claims.
A perusal of the impaired waters list created by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows a lengthy list of lakes, rivers, streams and public ditches that are degraded. Among them are area lakes including Bella, Ocheda, Okabena, Sarah, Shetek, Talcott and East and West Graham.
Also tagged as impaired are the Rock, Little Rock and Ocheyedan rivers and the Chanarambie, Champepedan, Pipestone, Kanaranzi and Beaver creeks, among many others. The MPCA updates the list every two years, and it was last done in 2014.
The impairments identified on the water bodies include everything from high levels of nutrients and fecal coliform bacteria to turbidity (cloudy water).
Despite Dayton’s assertions that the people of southwest Minnesota don’t care about water quality, there are three watershed districts within the six counties of far southwest Minnesota that have worked for years to encourage landowners to implement projects and spearhead efforts to protect one of the state’s most precious resources.
The Heron Lake Watershed District is comprised of 472 square miles and spans portions of Nobles, Murray and Jackson counties. The Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed is 310 square miles in size and covers a large portion of central and western Nobles County and a small portion of eastern Rock County. Between the two watershed districts is the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed. At just 76 square miles in size, it is the oldest of the three watershed districts, having formed in 1960. The HLWD was established in February 1970, and the K-LR in October 1981.
All three of the watershed districts have taxing authority, with the funds generated each year identified for watershed-specific projects.

‘Wetlands are like kidneys’
John Shea, executive secretary of the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District, said most of the river systems within his district are impaired based on MPCA standards.
“The years of removing wetlands and natural buffers that had been in place (are contributing to poor water quality),” he said. “Wetlands are like kidneys: you can probably live without one, but you remove all of them from the landscape and there’s going to be a response in the future, good or bad.”
Shea said it’s the nature of the beast to see more impairments and pollution as one moves through the watershed.
As for the K-LR, he said, “I’m not going to say it’s the worst, I’m not going to say it’s the best water in the state. I know there can be one bad apple within the watershed that can make the other dozen apples rot, too - or make them look bad by sending pollutants downstream.”
The water quality in the K-LR is no different from what managers see in the other two watershed districts.
“Yes, it is impaired, but it’s not unsafe to recreate in all year,” he said. “Sometimes we do have flare-ups where it’s not as safe as others.”
Such is the case in the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, where summertime algae blooms have OOWD Manager Dan Livdahl advising people to steer clear of Lake Okabena. The bacteria can cause skin irritations in humans and be fatal to dogs.
“We know the lakes aren’t as good as they could be,” Livdahl said. “We may have weeks in the fall when there are algae blooms and it probably isn’t safe to use them, but for most of the year, (the lakes) are safe.”
Livdahl said with the age of the lakes in southwest Minnesota, there are bound to be higher levels of nutrients in the water.
“They were high in nutrients even before we started farming, before we built towns and started draining sewage into lakes,” Livdahl said, pointing to comments made by surveyors in the 1860s, who defined Lake Okabena as a “fine sheet of water, very deep and of a deep sea-green in color.”
“While (the lakes are) not as good as they could be, we still love them and use them for recreation,” Livdahl said.
Within the Heron Lake Watershed District, Administrator Jan Voit said she and her staff have collected water samples within the watershed since 1990. Some years, the results are better than others.
“If it’s a heavy rain year, it seems the water is dirtier because there’s been more runoff and erosion,” she said.
In the district’s water quality summary from 2015, total phosphorus at Jack Creek decreased by 18 percent from the previous year, with an 8 percent decrease noted at the Heron Lake Outlet. Meanwhile, phosphorus levels increased 23 percent on the Okabena Creek during the same timeframe.
“Certainly our waters are impaired,” she said.
Yet, there is hope. Voit said the HLWD has noted a decrease in total suspended solids from 2004 to 2015 - a decrease that resulted from a combination of efforts - farmers doing no-till or minimum tillage, planting cover crops, installing sediment basins and establishing buffers.
“It takes all of those things,” she added.

Support for buffers
With Dayton’s buffer law still misunderstood by a lot of people - maps are slated to be ready in June to present to the public - local watershed managers say installing buffers along water courses is one of the easier practices to address water quality.
Within the OOWD, landowners are paid incentives to establish and maintain buffers - filter strips - along watercourses. Livdahl said the willingness of landowners to participate has resulted in 5.8 miles of protection along Okabena Creek, and another 3.6 miles of protected edges along wetlands.
“Filter strips are the first thing that should be done - it just makes sense not to have sheet runoff into the ditches,” Livdahl said. “The Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District looks pretty good, but I don’t think you’ll find that all of southwest Minnesota looks good.
“Some people don’t have buffers along streams and ditches,” he added. “I can see how farmers can be frustrated with each other. A lack of buffers isn’t only bad for water quality, it’s bad for plugging up the ditch. I think the buffer law is a good thing - we’re not going to benefit as much from it as others.”
The Heron Lake Watershed District once offered a one-time incentive payment for landowners to install buffer strips along streams, lakes and rivers. Voit said those who signed up had to keep the buffers in place for a decade. She doesn’t know how many of those buffers were dug up after the 10 years were up.
There has not been any recent discussion within the HLWD about incentivizing buffers. Voit said there are still too many unknowns with Dayton’s legislation to make any decisions about incentive payments.
Meanwhile, the K-LR introduced an incentive program for farmers willing to plant buffers just last fall.
“I hope it’s going to be a positive impact,” said Shea, adding that buffers are cheaper to implement than other practices such as wetland creation and installation of bioreactors on tile lines.
“Buffers are not a fix-all. They need to be paired with other best management practices on the landscape, whether putting a terrace on the upland, or putting in wetlands,” Shea said.

Easy fixes finished
In the OOWD, Livdahl said, “We’ve done the easy things. The filter strips are in place, we’ve got great participation in the ag community, we have better management. The easy things are done, but we still have polluted runoff in our lakes and streams.”
The OOWD is now looking to address some of the harder fixes - keeping soil on agricultural land, getting city residents to stop blowing grass clippings and yard debris into the streets and ultimately the storm sewers, and ending over-fertilization of yards.
“Everybody can agree (they want) clearer, cleaner water and just about everybody will point their finger at somebody else and say, ‘You ought to do something,’” Livdahl said. “We have to have a conversation with the agricultural and urban community on things we can do.”
Shea said improving water quality is going to require every landowner and contributor on the landscape to manage their property with an outlook to sustainability and clean water.
“If everybody was doing the most they could, I don’t think the governor would have to mandate these laws,” Shea said.
In the Heron Lake Watershed District, Voit said its board will continue to work on projects when they have willing landowners.
“We will seek grants and do whatever we can for farmers when they come in to ask us for help,” she said.
“It’s hard for people to understand that it’s everything we do. We all need to do something to improve water quality,” summed up Livdahl.
Minnesota’s water quality is set to take center stage on Saturday, when Dayton convenes his first-ever Water Summit in St. Paul. There were 800 tickets available for the event, all spoken for within a couple of days.

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