Grassed Waterways

For six years now, a friend of mine, who also works in soil and water conservation, has thrown a summer party of epic proportions at a farm way out in the middle of nowhere. The party features a band, bouncy castle, tire swing, giant slip and slide, potluck and canoe full of ice-cold beverages, plus many, many adults, kids and babies dancing, bouncing, swinging, sliding, eating and drinking. Five years in a row, I missed the party, but not this summer.

The route to nowhere, otherwise known as Welch, MN, led us down one gravel road after another, flanked on either side by rows and rows of corn and soybeans. Occasionally, a break in the crop lines would reveal a wavy pathway winding through the fields. Known as grassed waterways, these pathways lead runoff water from rain and melting snow off of farmland with minimal erosion.

A cornfield with grassed waterway in Stillwater Twp. helps to reduce runoff pollution.

Grassed waterways are an important conservation practice, but one that receives little attention.   They are neither colorful, nor showy, lack structural components and rarely require engineering. Most Midwesterners have driven past hundreds of grassed waterways in their lives without ever realizing what they were seeing. One you know what to look for, however, you’ll begin to see them all over the countyside.

A grassed waterway is built by planting deep-rooted perennials or native grasses along the route where water naturally travels in a field. Before planting, the land is often regraded or smoothed slightly to correct existing gullies formed by erosion. Erosion control blankets may be used as well to hold the soil in place until the plants are established. The perennials have extensive root systems that anchor the soil in place and help water to soak into the ground as well.

Per acre, lawns and suburban landscapes create as much polluted runoff as farmland, but cropland has a larger overall impact on our St. Croix, Mississippi and Minnesota River systems simply because so much more land is covered in crops than lawns. The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts provide funding and technical assistance to farmers and producers to install conservation practices that reduce erosion and runoff and prevent sediment and nutrients from polluting our rivers and lakes. Other common practices that help to keep our water clean include buffers of natural vegetation along streams and wetlands, sediment basins that help to settle soil and other debris out of runoff water, and cover crops, which hold the soil in place during the winter and early spring until the next year’s crops are planted. For advice and information about grants in Washington County, contact Adam King at 651-275-1136 x.35 or

Eventually, the crop fields that we drove past last weekend parted and a little house on a prairie appeared. The band was warming up and folks were setting out their lawn chairs while soggy kids with super-soakers darted around on the lawn. The air was warm, the food was good, and the nearby farmfields were happy.