Watershed environmental project in Rice County to share latest data March 21

By: 
Jarrod Schoenecker

United States Geological Survey modified graphic
The Middle Cannon River Watershed shown with the sub watersheds that are involved in the Farmers Protecting Bridgewater Streams Project in Bridgewater Township.

A number of entities came together to implement the Farmers Protecting Rice Creek Project in the Rice Creek watershed in 2018. The project expanded to include parts of Heath and Wolf Creek watersheds in 2021 and was renamed the Farmers Protecting Bridgewater Streams Project (FPBSP).

Rice Creek is located just west of Dundas and is Rice County’s only self-sustaining trout stream. The watershed covers approximately 3,900 acres. Heath Creek is west of Northfield. It begins just southeast of Lonsdale and the watershed starts within the town. Wolf Creek is south of Dundas. All three waterways are a part of the greater Middle Cannon River watershed.

Nearly 1,400 acres of farmland are participating in the project in Bridgewater Township. Of that, 1,000 acres are in the Rice Creek watershed, which is approximately 26 percent of the watershed. The remaining acres are in the Heath and Wolf Creek watersheds.

Involved in the collaboration included Rice Soil and Water Conservation District (RSCWD), Clean River Partners, Fishers and Farmers Partnership, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, St. Olaf College, Bridgewater Township, and Compeer Financial.

The partners in the collaboration work together with area farmers to educate, fund, implement, and monitor the effects of using cover crops and reduced tillage in an effort to make the streams cleaner and healthier.

“When you try cover crops, don’t just do five acres. Try 40 or 80 acres so that you can see a difference easier. Give it a test. If you give it two-to-three years, you might find your ‘ah-ha’ moment,” said participating farmer John Becker in a survey response given to the project. John has been farming since 1976 and started using cover crops in the summer of 2012.

Steve Devney, another participant, is a fifth-generation farmer in the Rice Creek sub-watershed. He had concerns if and when they might see a return on the costs they were putting into using cover crops but said he immediately noticed returns in reduced erosion, keeping necessary nutrients in the soil in place. He would like to pass his farm on to one of his six children someday. Steve said in a survey response about the study, “Taking care of the land is not just for the short-term, but also for the medium and long term.”

Conservation Program Assistant for Clean Rivers Partners Dane McKittrick says that farmers will notice a small drop in the yield within the first couple years that they introduce cover crops but, once the soil health starts to improve, they see noticeable increases in yield starting about the third or fourth year.

“Ideally, we would like to have funding to continue the project a few more years,” said McKittrick. When he was asked about what will happen after the project is done and if farmers would continue with the practices, he said, “We hope so. It will be on a per farmer basis.” He’s positive that farmers who are in the project long enough, see the improved soil conditions, and realize the slightly better yields, will continue to farm in that manner.

One of the main conditions being measured in the project is the presence of nitrates in the waterways. Nitrates can cause excessive weed and algae blooms and increase the toxicity of the water, which is harmful to fish and invertebrates.

RSWCD reported a 34-percent reduction in nitrate concentration levels, in comparison to fields with no cover crops, from tile line testing done in 2021. They also showed a nitrate reduction from of 2.74 mg/L in Rice Creek from 2020 to August 2021, measuring 8.0 mg/L down to 5.26 mg/L. Clean River Partners is reporting they have reduced nitrate runoff in the Rice Creek watershed by 43 percent now, after being four years into the project. They believe this has been achieved by promoting agricultural conservation strategies in the watershed, including cover crops and reduced tillage.

Community event

Organizers of the project want to share the most recent data and information with the community and invite people to expand sustainable farming practices throughout the region. They are holding a free public event with dinner (for those who register in advance) to go over the results and invite more people to get involved in the project on March 21 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the American Legion, 112 5th Street NE in Faribault. Professors from St. Olaf College will speak... Pick up the March 16 edition of the Montgomery Messenger to continue reading. Subscribe online at MontgomeryMNNews.com. Digital subscription included.

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