Introducing Watershed Connections

Watershed Connections

March 2015

Welcome to the first edition of Watershed Connections. This combines two previous newsletters, River Connections and Watershed Network News, and will be issued monthly. While many subscribers received both previous newsletters, the combined distribution list now exceeds 2,100. Thank you for your continued interest. We will strive to continue providing accurate, timely, and interesting news about water quality issues in watersheds comprising the Minnesota, Lower Mississippi, and Crow river basins.

Buffers: Greatest opportunity in southern, western Minnesota

Maple River lacks buffers

The greatest opportunity to improve buffers around water resources in Minnesota is in the southern and western parts of the state, where about half the shorelines need buffer coverage, according to Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR). Much of the Crow and Minnesota river watersheds are in this area.

In central and east central Minnesota, including much of the Lower Mississippi basin, almost 90 percent of the shorelines have good or very good buffers in place.

The DNR recently launched a website on Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to require a 50-foot buffer around lakes, rivers and streams. Earlier this month, Dayton introduced legislation (HF1534/SF1537) – co-authored by Rep. Paul Torkelson and Sen. John Marty – to mandate the buffers for the protection of water quality and habitat.

“The state’s existing rules on buffer strips are inconsistent, and they are enforced inconsistently – which almost always guarantees failure,” Dayton said. “The strengths of my proposal are its simplicity and common sense. People have the right to do lawful practices on their private properties; however, they should not have the right to contaminate waters that all of us depend upon.”

Buffer strips are designed to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment by slowing runoff and trapping polluted sediment. Buffer strips then allow vegetation to absorb any pollutants, preventing them from entering the water supply. Statewide, the proposal would require that 125,000 acres of land adjacent to water be designated for buffer strips, and covered in permanent vegetation.

The DNR would be responsible for enforcing the new law. The new law would provide a simple, uniform buffer requirement across all of Minnesota's waters. It does not alter existing shoreland rules or drainage law.

Photo above: Planting to the edge of a riverbank, a violation of the current buffer strip rule, is common in many places in Minnesota, including the Maple River watershed. (MPCA photo)

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Good discussion about ditch buffers at Waseca County farmers’ forum

kay clark at farmers forum

A full house at the Waseca County Farmers’ Forum at FarmAmerica March 11 offered many questions on the ditch buffer issue. Jason Garms, the new ag liaison for the DNR, gave an overview of the buffer laws and rules, and the recent initiative to revise and enforce the rules. Here is a sample of paraphrased questions and Garms’ responses (in parentheses):

  • What is the true source of the initiative? (DNR roundtables, pheasant summit).
  • Will this create more relationship challenges between local agencies and landowners? (Most landowners know their local SWCD staff. They are not enforcers, but helpers).
  • What are the incentives, what are farmers getting for losing cropland? (Maintain eligibility for cost-share programs, opportunity to be pro-active, avoid legal challenges, good public relations).
  • Many ditch buffers are bermed and there is no runoff. (There is flexibility for alternative practices).
  • How is water quality defined? (There are current impairment categories and levels).
  • What about sediment? We can’t protect all the banks against high flows. (The buffer initiative is not about levels of water quantity).

Following the ditch buffer discussion, several speakers from Iowa gave presentations and took questions about a market approach to wetlands establishment, prairie strips between row crops, and saturated buffers. Several organizations were present with displays and information tables. (Photo: Kay Clark talks with a visitor at the Greater Blue Earth River Basin Association table.)

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Related stories and studies:

Comments invited on strategies for restoring waters in Le Sueur River area

Le Sueur River watershed

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) invites comments on two reports outlining strategies to restore the Le Sueur River watershed. The reports are open for comment March 30– April 29.

This watershed is one of the highest polluting watersheds in Minnesota, according to data collected statewide. Impairments – waters that fail to meet standards – are common throughout the watershed.

The Le Sueur watershed covers 711,000 acres in south-central Minnesota. It drains parts of Blue Earth, Faribault, Freeborn, Steele and Waseca counties. This river meets the Blue Earth River near Mankato, where drinking water wells extract water from below the Blue Earth River.

The MPCA and local partners have intensely monitored waters in the Le Sueur drainage area and assessed them to see if they meet state water quality standards. They have also identified conditions that stress fish and other aquatic life, as well as conditions that support this life and other benefits. The agency has drafted Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies for the Le Sueur area as a whole.

It has also drafted Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), which are the maximum amounts of pollutants that water bodies can accept and still meet standards, for six sections of streams and four lakes:

  • Little Cobb River, from Bull Run Creek to the Cobb River, for low dissolved oxygen related to nutrient levels. Reductions in phosphorus from nonpoint sources such as field runoff and from point sources such as wastewater are needed to meet standards.
  • Parts of the Le Sueur River, Boot Creek, Rice Creek, County Ditch 3 and Cobb River for bacteria levels. Reductions of 19 to 70 percent are needed to meet standards.
  • Madison, Elysian, Eagle and Freeborn lakes for nutrient levels. Reductions of 61.8 to 73.5 percent are needed to meet standards.

Major stressors in this watershed include these interrelated factors:

  • Changes to the watershed’s hydrology.
  • Lack of habitat.
  • High nutrient levels. Nutrients can lead to algal blooms that can harm aquatic life such as fish and recreation such as swimming.
  • High turbidity levels. Turbidity is a measurement of how cloudy or muddy water is, with standards set for clearer water to support aquatic life and recreation.

A main strategy to restoring waters in this area is mitigating the changes in hydrology through conservation tillage, water retention basins, restored wetlands, controlled drainage and other methods. Other strategies include buffers along waterways, streambank stabilization, septic system upgrades and stormwater management.

Comments on the reports, which are available online, are due by 4:30 p.m. on April 29, to Paul Davis, MPCA project manager, at or 12 Civic Center Dr., Ste. 2165, Mankato, MN. Davis can be reached at 507-344-5246 or 800-657-3864.

Written comments must include a statement of your interest in the report; a statement of the action you wish the MPCA to take, including specific references to sections of the draft report you believe should be changed; and specific reasons for your position.

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LeSueur network focuses on targeting, water storage

lesueur watershed network meeting

More than 75 people from across the LeSueur River watershed met March 24 in St. Clair to learn and discuss water management issues. Brooke Hacker and Scott Bohling, of the DNR, discussed flow trends and widening channels in the system. Chuck Brandel, engineer with I+S Group, described multipurpose drainage systems designed for temporary water storage during storm events.

Following the speakers, participants engaged in group discussions about the Network Steering Committee’s ideas to start working on the Seven Recommendations for cleaner water and river health in the Le Sueur River watershed. Ideas include: 1. Narrow focus to 2-4 subwatersheds; 2. Prioritize Recommendations #1 (More stormwater management and more in-ditch storage) and Recommendation #2 (More experimentation with temporary water storage); and 3. Keep meeting, talking and learning together. There was general consensus on these three approaches for moving forward.

Currently the network is partnering with Faribault County SWCD on a Community Partners Grant for stormwater management projects across the watershed. Coordinating staff and Network Steering Committee members are using their three approaches outlined to target projects eligible for funds from the Community Partners Grant. For more information about the Le Sueur River Watershed Network, visit or contact Jessica Nelson,, 507-389-2704. (Photo: Brooke Hacker describes the widening channels in the Le Sueur River system.)

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Minnesota River Valley group homing in on organizational structure

MN River congress logo

The third Minnesota River Congress will convene Thursday, April 16 at Turner Halle in New Ulm. The purpose will be to decide on a mission, organizational structure, objectives, guiding principles and ground rules for future meetings. Doors will open at 4:30 p.m. for a “networking fair” with displays and representatives from organizations active in the Minnesota River basin. A “burger bar” buffet will start at 6 p.m. Results from prior congresses will be reviewed at 6:45 p.m. The full session begins at 7 p.m. and will adjourn at 9 p.m.

The third congress will build from previous congress meetings June 19 and Oct. 30, and six regional meetings. It is open to everyone interested in the economic, social, and natural resource vitality of the basin, encompassing nearly 11 million acres, more than 700,000 people, and thousands of farms and industries. Cost per person is $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Networking booth space is available on a limited basis for $30. Checks made to Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River can be mailed to P.O. Box 488, New Ulm, MN 56073. Tables will be provided. You can register individually online using Paypal. Online registration for a networking fair booth is also available.

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Watershed network spring meeting April 23 in Redwood Falls

mn map watersheds

The watershed professionals network spring meeting is scheduled for Thursday, April 23, at the Redwood Falls Pizza Ranch, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. This learning and networking opportunity is open to all who are working with or interested in land and water resources, primarily in the central and southern Minnesota watersheds. To assist us with planning, please RSVP if you are planning to attend:, 320-441-6972.

Topics include: Minnesota Digital water research library, Christine Yaeger, Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture;  Watershed Health Assessment Framework, Beth Knudsen, DNR; High Island Creek, Jon Lore, DNR;  Minnesota River Council, Scott Sparlin, Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River;  Farmer perspectives on climate change, Shawn Wohnoutka, Redwood-Cottonwood Rivers Control Area; Perspective on science – physical and social – for water quality, Forrest Peterson, MPCA; Round robin, news, events, staff. Lunch is available at the Pizza Ranch for $9.24.

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Watersheds co-sponsor ‘soil health day’ for ag students

terry aukes

Four watershed organizations helped sponsor a ‘soil health day’ for agriculture students March 24 at Ridgewater College in Willmar. More than 250 students, farmers and conservationists learned about cover crops and building soil health. Along with key sponsors USDA-NRCS and Kandiyohi SWCD, sponsors included the Middle Fork Crow Watershed District, Crow River Organization of Water, Chippewa River Watershed Project, and Hawk Creek Watershed Project. Keynote speaker Terry Aukes (NRCS photo, right), of Hills in far southwestern Minnesota, described the benefits and challenges of using cover crops to reduce erosion and build soil organic matter.

The clear message was that conventional crop production must change to include cover crops and reduced or no tillage. A one percent increase in soil organic matter increases water-holding capacity by 19,000 gallons per acre, Aukes says. A farmer and co-op manager, Aukes concluded with a quote from President Roosevelt in the 1930s: "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Among the breakout sessions, Kandiyohi County farmer Charles Cunningham described his success with no-till since the late 1990s. Other sessions included assessing soil health, soil biology and grazing. For more information about the event, contact Melanie Dickman, district conservationist, 320-235-3906, ext. 3.

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