Hawk Creek Watershed Project watching nitrogen, phosphorus levels in west central Minnesota lakes


— The Hawk Creek watershed continues to stand out among its neighbors for excessive levels of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen in its waters, but progress is being made.

Water quality monitoring in recent years has shown a statistically significant decrease in phosphorus levels in waters statewide, and Hawk Creek is part of that trend, according to Eileen Campbell, supervisor with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's long-term surface water data unit.

Hawk Creek is showing some decreases in the total suspended solids, a measure of sediment in the waters. While nitrogen levels continue to rise in Minnesota waters, monitoring in the Hawk Creek watershed shows no trend upwards or downwards.

Campbell offered a look at water quality progress in the watershed during the

Hawk Creek Watershed Project's

annual meeting Feb. 15 in Renville. The event is an opportunity to assess the condition of the watershed, which includes portions of Kandiyohi, Renville and Chippewa counties.

The Hawk Creek Watershed Project, organized under a joint powers agreement among the three counties, has been working for 26 years now with landowners.

It has helped make possible 1,767 different projects — from shoreline restorations on Eagle Lake at the headwaters to projects to reduce gullies and other erosion sources throughout the watershed's farmlands during that time frame, according to Heidi Rauenhorst, coordinator of the watershed project since 2012.

Campbell said the challenges in the watershed are a reflection of the landscape. The watershed is extensively drained, moving water quickly. Eighty-one percent of the total land is used for cultivated crops, and 7% is developed as residential and municipal use, according to information provided at the event.

Strategies to improve water quality have to take into account the reality of the land use, and focus on making as many small changes in the most strategic or effective locations to do so, according to Campbell.

"You guys are doing a great job of that in Hawk Creek," she told the audience.

Rauenhorst cited the benefits. Projects on the landscape to implement what are termed "best management practices" have helped reduce erosion in the watershed and prevented nearly 18,814 tons of soil from reaching the

Minnesota River

during the 26 years of the watershed project.

Those same efforts have kept 61,000 pounds of phosphorus from the waterways and feeding algae blooms.

While things are improving, there is a long ways to go. Rauenhorst said the levels of sediment and nitrogen in the watershed's waters are 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 times where she would like them to be for a waterway in an agricultural area. Phosphorus levels are 2 to 2 1/2 times the levels desired.

Peak water flows from the drained landscape and erosion from the landscape and channel banks in the watershed are the primary problems.

There are 72 reaches in the watershed that are listed as

impaired waters by the MPCA

. The causes include excessive levels of suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorus; unhealthy levels of E. coli bacteria from animal and human waste; and mercury.

The watershed project currently has $1.1 million in active grant funds — the majority of them federal clean water monies — committed to work in the watershed, and has secured another $1 million for future work.

Through its history, the watershed project has brought in $17.2 million to the watershed for water quality improvements, the greatest share of the funds from the federal government, according to Rauenhorst. The total includes $9.4 million in grants for projects and $7.8 million in low-interest septic improvement projects for the watershed's rural residents.

Rauenhorst emphasized that the work in the watershed is made possible through partnerships with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, drainage authorities and the Natural Resources Conservation Service offices in the three counties.

The Hawk Creek Watershed Project is a local government entity with representatives from the three member counties' boards of commissioners on the governance board. It was established to improve water quality and promote the agriculture and recreation-based economies in the watershed. It serves to provide a local voice and local control over water quality issues, she explained.