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Winnebago River Watershed: Practices and plans underway to restore water quality

The Winnebago River Watershed in southern Freeborn County faces several water quality challenges, including high levels of algae and bacteria. Landowners and producers have implemented several practices to reduce those pollutants and improve water quality, according to a press release, and more are in the works, thanks to Freeborn County and its Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently completed two studies that show the Winnebago River Watershed suffers from extensive changes to its natural hydrology — artificial drainage — that have harmed fish and bug populations. None of the streams studied meet the state standard for aquatic life.

The Winnebago watershed is 688 square miles in size, with 71 square miles in Minnesota and the rest in Iowa. It includes the cities of Conger and Emmons in southern Freeborn County. The Winnebago chain of water resources starts with Steward Creek in Freeborn County, and ends when it flows into the Cedar River, which some downstream cities use as a drinking water source.

Freeborn County is working with landowners to put in practices to:

• Reduce high phosphorus and bacteria levels in Lime Creek from Bear Lake to the Iowa border. Phosphorus can lead to severe algae blooms that hurt aquatic life and recreation. Bacteria can make water unsafe for wading and other contact recreation.

• Reduce high phosphorus and algae levels in Bear and State Line lakes.

• Reduce high levels of nitrogen in Steward Creek that can hurt aquatic life and impact downstream drinking water sources.

• Increase levels of dissolved oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life.

• Improve habitat for fish and bugs in Steward Creek and other streams in the watershed.

Because 85% of land in the watershed is used for agriculture, the Freeborn SWCD is working with landowners on:

• Better managing nutrient and manure application on agricultural fields

  Expanding the use of soil health practices

• Restoring wetlands to increase water storage

• Converting parts of existing ditches to two-stage ditches, which are more stable and decrease nutrient levels

• Ensuring septic systems and animal feedlots are not contributing bacteria to the watershed

One SWCD project focuses on controlled drainage, a fairly new technology in agricultural conservation. Larry Bidne, who lives and farms near Emmons, recently decided that controlled drainage would be beneficial on a field he rents just west of Bear Lake, the release stated. Controlled drainage is a great way to hold water in the soil profile and make it available to crops when needed.

It also helps protect water resources downstream by holding back water that could carry nutrients from fertilizer that grow algae, negatively impacting fish and other aquatic life along with recreation. Holding back water after storm events also helps mitigate high flows that can erode fields and streambanks. Erosion leads to sediment in the water, where cloudy conditions make it hard for fish and aquatic insects to find food, avoid predators, and perform other life functions.

The area near Bear Lake is very sandy, and the water table is regulated by the lake level. In a wet season, Bidne can hold back water with the controlled drainage system and reduce minor flooding that would otherwise hurt the crop. In a dry season, he can meter out the water to help the crop grow.

In this case, controlled drainage will help reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in Bear Lake, State Line Lake, the Winnebago River and water resources downstream in Iowa.

Bidne also uses reduced tillage, a practice that builds soil health and prevents erosion. He is one of many farmers in the Winnebago River Watershed who are implementing best management practices, or BMPs, that benefit farming and water quality.

This is one example of how the SWCD works with landowners and farmers to implement BMPS that leave the land and water in better condition for generations to come.

The SWCD has funding available for many BMPs. Currently its office is closed to the public, but the staff is checking phone messages left at 507-320-3728.  The office will reopen when the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted.

The MPCA studies are open through Wednesday for comment:

• The total maximum daily load (TMDL) study identifies bodies of water that fail to meet water-quality standards (known as impaired waters), the sources of pollution, and how much pollution reduction is needed to restore the waters.

• The watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) report recommends ways to protect waters that are in good condition, and improve impaired waters.

Mail or email written comments to Emily Zanon at emily.zanon@state.mn.us or MPCA, 18 Wood Lake Drive SE, Rochester, MN 55904.

For more information about the studies and how to comment on them, go to the agency website at www.pca.state.mn.us and search for “Winnebago River.”