On a chilly morning in March, 30 local farmers gathered at the Scandia Community Center to meet staff from the Washington Conservation District and learn about new funding available for conservation projects on farms in the St. Croix Valley. During a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and cinnamon rolls, District Manager Jay Riggs explained how elevated phosphorus levels in the St. Croix River are creating unhealthy conditions and what farmers can do to address this problem.
The Conservation District was established in 1942 in the wake of the dustbowl. Over the years, it has encouraged a variety of conservation farming practices, including using cover crops to hold the soil in place during the winter, building sediment basins that temporarily hold back runoff water and allow sediment to settle out, planting buffers of native or perennial plants along lakes and streams, creating grassed waterways in high-flow areas of farm fields, and planting trees to improve wildlife habitat and reduce wind erosion.
Five years ago, the Washington Conservation District received a grant from the St. Croix River Association to identify the “Top 50” locations in southern Washington County where conservation projects could most help to keep phosphorus and sediment out of the St. Croix River. Staff looked at potential projects identified in previous watershed plans and ravine inventories, in addition to conducting field assessments and site visits with land owners to identify new opportunities. Using modeling software, they estimated how much sediment and nutrients could be captured at each location and prepared a cost-benefit analysis of different structural and nonstructural practices that could be used. Then the district began reaching out to landowners.
During 2012 and 2013, the Washington Conservation District worked with five landowners in Afton and Denmark Twp. to install sediment basins on their properties in order to slow down rain runoff, reduce erosion, and filter out pollutants like sediment and phosphorus. A sediment basin is essentially a large, shallow bowl with a berm to hold back water from rain and melting snow, allowing time for suspended sediments to settle out. Pipes are built into the sides of the berms, allowing the water to flow through slowly so that it doesn’t cause erosion downhill or downstream. All five of the sediment basins were built upstream of eroding gullies that were previously sending large amounts of sediment and nutrients downstream to the St. Croix River. Together, these five projects will keep 163 pounds of phosphorus out of the river each year, which is the equivalent of 81,500 pounds of algae.
Now, the Conservation District has additional funding from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, through a Legacy funded Clean Water Grant, to install additional conservation projects on farms near the St. Croix River in both southern and northern Washington County. By pairing state funds with local Watershed District funds, the Conservation District will be able to complete these projects at little to no cost to the farmers that own the land.
Though this particular grant is short-term, Riggs made it clear to the group in Scandia that the Washington Conservation District is interested in establishing long-term relationships with area farmers and landowners and in doing more than just one-time projects. No-till farming and cover crops are two additional conservation farming strategies that have been getting a lot of attention in the Midwest lately because they help to improve soil health so that farmers can achieve greater yields with less chemical fertilizers, thereby increasing profit margins. No-till and cover crops also result in less erosion because there is less bare soil during the year, which translates into less pollution for nearby lakes and rivers – a win-win situation for everyone.
To learn more about funding and technical assistance available for conservation farming practices and projects in Washington County, contact 651-330-8220 or go to www.mnwcd.org.