Watershed partnership assisting tomorrow’s leaders

Nicollet County’s Seven Mile Creek Park offers hiking, fishing, and picnicking. Seven Mile Creek, flowing through the park to the Minnesota River, is one of very few designated trout streams in south-central Minnesota.

The creek is also the main natural drainage system for 24,000 acres of some of the most fertile and productive agricultural land in the world. While it is often beautiful and clear, the water registers high levels of nitrate-nitrogen, phosphorus, and, during periods of intense rain and snowmelt, suspended sediment.

In recent years, members of The Seven Mile Creek Watershed Partnership have reached out to each of the 320 farmers and rural residents that own land in the watershed to join them in answering a central question:

What can we do together to sustain and advance the long-term economic and environmental health of this watershed?

The responses have been encouraging, said Seven Mile Creek Watershed Manager Susie Carlin. Landowners are coming forward to learn more and take real steps toward land management that has a positive impact on the environment.

“The lessons we learn in this watershed may help solve problems across the region.” ~Susie Carlin, Great River Greening Program Manager

Carlin is on staff with Great River Greening, which joined with Nicollet Soil and Water Conservation District in 2012 to recharge the partnership – a coalition of people aligned with agriculture, recreation, conservation, urban/rural communities, education, and government entities.

Carlin describes the group as unique, “Because the members are supportive of modern farming methods, a vibrant farm economy, and excellent water quality. Too often, agriculture and environmental quality are considered mutually exclusive.”

Examples of projects that landowners have done with the Partnership’s assistance include:

  • Two landowners installed underground bioreactors, which redirect tile water to an underground bed of wood chips where nitrate is removed naturally.
  • Eight landowners installed water control structures and planted hundreds of acres of cover crops that reduce runoff and build healthy soil.
  • Nineteen landowners reduced soil erosion by planting filter strips and using other techniques.
  • Landowners and community members have participated in the University of Minnesota’s GeoDesign workshops and were shown different ways to control erosion. They also discussed ways to maintain high economic profitability while improving environmental quality.

Underground water control structures, like bioreactors, saturated buffers, and drainage water management all result in less nitrogen flowing through drain tile. More years of data collection are needed to determine how these efforts will impact the water quality of the whole creek. In collaboration with Great River Greening and the Nicollet SWCD, Gustavus Adolphus professor Laura Triplett has been awarded a grant through the MPCA to begin monitoring the effectiveness of these conservation efforts. Triplett is a member of the Seven Mile Creek Partnership. Carlin said they also are measuring the improvements from individual projects, and are hopeful that those will translate into watershed-scale success.

Last year, the partnership began implementing a 10-year strategic plan that was devised with input from 65 members of community. It includes:

  • Facilitating agricultural practices and other land management strategies that have a positive impact on the environment
  • Exploring new crops and markets that generate income and achieve conservation objectives
  • Supporting conservation-minded farmers by increasing their access to education, data, and communication tools

Carlin says what is exciting about this plan is that it takes everyone’s feedback in account. And, it positions visionary farmers to lead, as they gain experience and identify what works. “With their deep and natural ties to the landowners in the watershed, these people are making really good decisions about where we should invest our collective efforts.”

The Seven-Mile Creek Watershed Partnership program is part of Great River Greening’s larger Minnesota River program, a collaborative, solution-oriented approach to water quality. It is founded on a strategy where water resource concerns are addressed locally.