RENVILLE — “In a nutshell, our water quality is not good in the Hawk Creek Watershed.”
That was the blunt assessment from Heidi Rauenhorst, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, at the organization’s 20th annual meeting on March 9 in Renville.
This marks the 25th anniversary of the organization’s founding. It was launched in 1997 amidst the background of flooding in the Minnesota River basin. Its goals remain to improve water quality in the 623,105-acre watershed while promoting the agricultural, industrial and recreational industries in it, according to the director.
The watershed includes portions of Kandiyohi, Renville and Chippewa counties. Hawk Creek runs 65 miles from Eagle Lake to the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls.
Eighty-one percent of the land in the watershed is cultivated for crops. Water- and wind-driven erosion remain the major issues for water quality. Rauenhorst reported that water quality monitoring in the past year continues to show that the watershed is among the worst in the state in terms of excessive levels of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus loads.
By the time it reaches the Minnesota River, Hawk Creek is carrying nearly 2.5 times the level of total suspended sediments as is the state standard for a stream in an agricultural area. Its phosphorus load is also 2.5 times the standard.
The state has not yet set a standard for nitrogen, but the levels in Hawk Creek remain well above what’s desired. Last year’s monitoring showed a nitrogen level of 7.54 parts per million.
The biggest challenge remains this: We’re moving too much water too fast, according to Rauenhorst. Many of the efforts by the watershed project are aimed at helping landowners install best management practices that serve to slow and hold water on the landscape. The project also has been working with local entities on armoring streambanks and other measures to limit the damage caused by the high velocity flows and flashy hydrology of the altered landscape.
The organization continues to partner with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts and other entities in the three counties to work with landowners on projects to improve water quality. Since its start, the Hawk Creek Watershed Project has brought in $16 million in federal funds to benefit the watershed.
The total includes $8.2 million in grants and $7.8 million in loans for septic upgrades in the watershed. Portions of waterways in the watershed are listed as impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency due to E.Coli and Fecal Coliform levels.
The watershed project has invested in 1,743 projects with landowners in the past 21 years. The projects are estimated to have kept 1,870 dump truck loads of soil from the Minnesota River.
The watershed project also works to assist and encourage landowners to implement practices such as reduced tillage and the planting of cover crops that improve soil health and as a result, improve water quality.