Sediment forum draws 250 to learn about improving water quality

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The Near-Channel Sediment Source Management Forum on January 4 in North Mankato brought together about 250 people who share a common concern for the future of the Minnesota River and water quality across the state.

About forty of those in attendance were farmers. Farmer-supported research shows that stream-bank erosion, or “near-channel” sources produce the majority of sediment that clouds Minnesota’s rivers.

“People used to think that 70 to 80 percent of sediment came off crop land—but Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council research on stream banks shows the farm land number is closer to 25 percent, and most of the rest comes from stream banks,” said Bruce Peterson, a farmer in Northfield who attended the forum. Peterson serves as secretary for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Peterson said, “As farmers, we know it’s still important to learn how to reduce that 25 percent. The critical question becomes how can we reduce the amount water that leaves the farm. By the time it makes it to the river, we found out how that can have an impact—gully formation and so forth.

Farmers and landowners of every sort have developed ways to send excess water away from their land—whether it is tile drainage on farms or sump systems for basements of homes and commercial properties. Developing means of increasing water storage on the land, before the water enters streams and rivers, may be a method to reduce stream bank erosion, several of the day’s presenters said.

“Farmers tend to get a bad rap for tile drainage, but the reason farmers do it is that they know well-drained soils produce healthier crops,” Peterson observed. “This in turn produces more crop residue, which counters the impact, somewhat, of water leaving ag land—the residue slows the water down and allows sediment to drop out.”

Research on water storage and engineered treatments for banks show promise for reducing loss of soil into watercourses. Rain gardens, holding ponds and other methods of water retention are gaining wider spread use.

“Developers in the urban and suburban areas, farmers, non-farmers in rural areas—we all need to work together to reduce the impacts on the land,” said Peterson. “One single corrective action won’t change our sediment problems overnight, but lots of us making small changes could have an impact.”

Riley Maanum, Research & Project Manager at MCGA, said one important outcome of a meeting like this was how it brings together farmers with the government officials who can work most closely with them on solutions.

“The fixes that can go on at the farm are going to happen through the local Soil and Water Conservation district offices and the Natural Resource Conservation Service,” said Maanum. A lot of folks from these agencies were at the forum—we want to communicate to them that farmers are willing to work with them. Farmers want to do the right thing. We are moving forward and we have been moving forward since agriculture started. We don’t farm the same as we did last year, because we are always learning new things.”

The series of speakers represented divergent viewpoints, and was important for these scientists and researchers to interact, Peterson felt. Sorting out the options may still point to tough choices, but ones that could be made with full, scientific research to back them up. One of the speakers talked about different management options for some of the steep ravines and banks along the river. One of his conclusions, Peterson noted, was that, instead of trying to stabilize banks, it would be cheaper to move the channel of the river. This though, could involve loss of valuable land to individual property owners, or the need to move homes or buildings to make way for a better water channel placement.

“Our voice was heard loud and clear at the forum,” Maanum said. “It’s not that we wanted to argue about anything. We want to be at the table.”

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