Continuing a legacy of soil and water conservation

War has been declared on erosion that has cut cavernous raw gullies into mutilated hillsides of the St. Croix Valley sixteen miles east of St. Paul near the Hudson toll bridge.

St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press – July 16, 1939

It is easy to take for granted the verdant forests, sparkling lakes, and buzzing prairies in Washington County, Minnesota, but eighty years ago, the landscape here was actually quite different. After the lumber era came to an end in the late 1800s, European-American settlers began establishing farms across Minnesota on land that once held prairie, woods, and oak savanna. The soil was fertile but the rain was fickle.

During the 1930s, a series of droughts buffeted the entire Midwest and temperatures vacillated wildly from one month to the next. Without the deep and fibrous roots of the prairies and forests to hold it in place, the soil sloughed in the rain and blew in the wind.

In response to the massive environmental and economic catastrophe unfolding, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) began to form in counties across the state. Winona was the first county in Minnesota to establish a SWCD in 1938 and Washington County followed suit in 1942. Today there are 88 SWCDs in Minnesota – one for every county in the state except for Hennepin and Ramsey, with two each in Otter Tail, Polk, and St. Louis Counties.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts provide education and technical assistance to landowners and communities for the protection of land, water, and habitat and their board supervisors are elected officials (look for them on the back side of the ballot with the judges). Surprisingly to many people, however, SWCDs do not have authority to levy taxes or fees to fund their programming. Instead, they are dependent on grants, contracts, and pass-through funding from federal, state and local government.

Washington Conservation District offers bare-root seedlings in bundles of 25 for $40 to be used for habitat, erosion control, and conservation plantings. Order now for pick-up on April 28-29.

One of the Washington Conservation District’s most popular programs is its annual tree sale, which provides bare-root seedlings in bundles of 25 for $40 to be used for habitat, erosion control, and conservation plantings. Through this program, local landowners have purchased and planted more than 350,000 trees over the past 15 years.

WCD also offers free site visits to county residents and technical assistance for conservation projects. These range in size and scale from backyard butterfly gardens to large-scale conversions of cropland to prairie. Along with these in-person site visits, the WCD also presents free workshops through the East Metro Water Resource Education Program.

Community residents take a tour of Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program.

Additional WCD roles include monitoring water quality in 68 lakes and 60 streams; monitoring water levels in 40 observation wells; conducting permit inspections at active construction sites; conducting watercraft inspections at public boat launches to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species; helping farmers and producers to implement practices such as cover crops and nutrient management; and engaging community volunteers in environmental stewardship. 

Last week, SWCD staff and supervisors from around the state met with state legislators during the annual Soil and Water Conservation Districts Day at the Capitol. SWCD representatives use this event as an opportunity to establish and maintain relationships with law-makers and share updates about habitat and clean water projects happening in their communities.

Minnesota Senator Matt Klein, Laura Zanmiller (Dakota SWCD supervisor), David Nuccio (Washington CD supervisor), John Rheinberger (Washington CD supervisor), Brian Watson (Dakota SWCD district manager), Tim Behrends (Washington CD supervisor), Jay Riggs (Washington CD district manager), and Diane Blake (Washington CD supervisor) during the March 8, 2023 SWCD Day at the Capitol event.

One major legislative priority this year is a proposal to establish permanent funding through the state’s Department of Revenue for SWCDs around the state. In recent years, this type of capacity funding has come from the Clean Water Fund, which makes it vulnerable to changes from one year to the next and reduces the total amount of funding available for grant-based clean water projects. Leaders at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts are requesting a $22 million appropriation to fully fund base level services at all 88 SWCDs in Minnesota.

To learn more about the Washington Conservation District and its programs, visit www.mnwcd.org. The WCD is currently accepting tree orders for pick-up on April 28-29 and is hiring seasonal staff for its construction site and watercraft inspections programs. The website also has registration information for upcoming workshops, including Bee Lawns (April 3), Protect your shore (April 18), Restore your shore (May 8), and Managing woodlands for resiliency (June 6).