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Water quality improves slightly in North Fork Crow River watershed

A comprehensive assessment of the North Fork Crow River watershed found small but noticeable improvement in aquatic health.

A hooded merganzer takes flight from the waters of the Middle Fork of the Crow River in April, 2022 in this Tribune file photo.
A hooded merganzer takes flight from the waters of the Middle Fork of the Crow River in April, 2022 in this Tribune file photo.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune file photo
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BROOTEN — A comprehensive assessment of water quality in the North Fork of the Crow River watershed found some improvement in water quality, although excessive levels of nutrients continue to stress the system.

“I think there are some things that are improving,” said Scott Lucas, project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who helped develop the assessment. “We can do a lot better, obviously,” he added.

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The watershed is home to some of the region’s most popular recreational lakes, including Koronis and Rice Lakes in Stearns County and Minnie-Belle, Washington and Ripley in Meeker County. Starting at Grove Lake in Pope County, the North Fork flows 120 miles to the South Fork of the Crow River at Rockford and ultimately, the Mississippi River.

The recently completed assessments, known as a Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy, or WRAPS, also includes the Middle Fork of the Crow River. Nest and Green Lakes and the Mill Pond in New London are part of the Middle Fork watershed.

The report is based on data collected in the years 2007-08 and 2017-18, along with the ongoing water quality monitoring conducted in the watershed by the North Fork and Middle Fork watershed districts.

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Kayakers paddle on the water of the Mill Pond in New London on the Middle Fork of the Crow River in June 2019 in New London in this Tribune file photo.  A comprehensive analysis of water quality in the North Fork of the Crow River also included a look at water quality in some of the water bodies in the Middle Fork of the Crow River valued for their recreational opportunities.
Kayakers paddle on the water of the Mill Pond in New London on the Middle Fork of the Crow River in June 2019 in New London in this Tribune file photo. A comprehensive analysis of water quality in the North Fork of the Crow River also included a look at water quality in some of the water bodies in the Middle Fork of the Crow River valued for their recreational opportunities.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

The report found that in general, since 2007, the health of aquatic communities has improved “a small but noticeable amount.”

The adoption of best management practices by farmers in the watershed, the addition of vegetative buffers along ditches and efforts in communities to reduce nutrients all have helped nudge things in the right direction.

Overall, water quality in the North Fork of the Crow is below average. Higher than desired levels of phosphorus and nitrogen remain the biggest challenges in the watershed.

Kevin Farnum of the Koronis Lake Association holds starry stonewort pulled from the lake in this Tribune file photo. Aquatic Invasive Species are among the challenges facing the North Fork of the Crow River Watershed.
Kevin Farnum of the Koronis Lake Association holds starry stonewort pulled from the lake in this Tribune file photo. Aquatic Invasive Species are among the challenges facing the North Fork of the Crow River Watershed.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

Many of the strategies aimed at improving water quality focus on agricultural land, which represents the greatest share of the land base in the watershed.

The study found that efforts to mitigate some of the damage from fertilizer and chemical runoffs minimize some of the damage, but do not eliminate it. Lucas said the most effective means to improve water quality are those that focus on building soil health, such as planting cover crops and minimal tillage practices.

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There is a growing effort to promote soil building practices and inform all residents in the watershed about ways they can help improve water quality, said Lucas. The recent assessment provides an honest appraisal of the watershed while offering a strategy to continue the movement towards better water quality.

“There’s a lot to do yet,” he said. “I think we’ve had some very good work done out there, but a lot more work needs to be done out there.”

The full assessment and other information on the watershed can be found at the MPCA Assessment page.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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