When the Minnesota Board of Soil & Water Resources announced the allocation of more than $14 million in 2015 Clean Water Fund grants on Jan. 26, the Becker Soil & Water Conservation District was a big winner.

Two of Becker SWCD’s Clean Water Fund grant applications, totaling $655,000, were approved for funding.

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“Our approved grants equate to 5 percent of the statewide allocation from the Clean Water Fund (for 2015),” said Becker SWCD Administrator Peter Mead.

And it wasn’t exactly a sure thing: BWSR received 197 applications requesting $37 million during the highly competitive grant review process.

“I would call that kicking butt,” joked Keith Weston, Red River Basin coordinator for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which is a partner in the projects designated for funding. “It’s very impressive.”

One of the projects approved for funding was the “Buffalo Red Shallow Lakes & Mainstem Improvement Strategy,” ranked No. 1 in the grant review, while the other, the “South Branch Wild Rice Sediment Reduction Project,” was ranked No. 10 out of the 197 applications received.

The Buffalo Red project, which encompasses both Clay and Becker counties, “will reduce nutrient and sediment delivery to 12 impaired lakes and impaired reaches of the Buffalo River,” according to the description submitted with the application.

“Under this project, 65 water and sediment control basins and 80 acres of filter strips will be implemented to meet 28 percent of the phosphorus reduction goals for lakes in the watershed and as much as 32 percent of the phosphorus reduction goal for the Buffalo River Mainstem,” the project description says.

The South Branch Wild Rice project, meanwhile, “will implement 45 erosion control structures and 40 acres of filter strips to reduce sediment loading to the South Branch of the Wild Rice River in Becker County,” according to the description on the grant application.

“Fully implemented, this project stands to reduce sediment loads leaving the project area by 26 percent and reduce total suspended solids (TSS) in the Lower Wild Rice River by 7 percent.”

Basically, Mead said, “much of the area west of Highway 59 is targeted” for improvements between the two projects.

The Clay SWCD is also a partner in the project, he added, and the Buffalo Red and Wild Rice watershed districts have each pledged $25,000 toward the projects targeting their respective areas.

“Water and soil (erosion) don’t obey political boundaries, so conservation shouldn’t either,” said Mead.

According to Weston, sediment runoff has become more of an issue in the Red River Basin area because high corn prices have caused more land to be placed in corn production - land that previously served as a buffer area to prevent runoff from active cropland from draining directly into the region’s water supply.

“That’s one of the things this initiative is trying to address,” he said, adding, “The Red River Basin initiative addresses trying to keep water on the landscape and not letting it run off downstream and cause flood damage - but it’s also about water quality.”

Following a visit from U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last July, “the secretary offered this area an extra $50 million for (implementing) conservation practices,” Weston said.

Recently, the Red River Basin received word that it had been selected by USDA for its Regional Conservation Partnership Program and was designated as a critical conservation area.

“It’s sort of a perfect storm for conservation,” said Mead. “RCPP brings additional federal funds to partners and producers working to reduce sediment and nutrient loading to surface waters.”

Weston said the Environmental Quality Incentives Program may also provide an additional funding source. 

“When dovetailed with the Clean Water funds, these programs can cover up to 100 percent of the cost of treating the most crucial areas of these watersheds,” Mead said.

“It’s a pretty unique situation,” said Ed Musielewicz, district conservationist at the NRCS field office in Detroit Lakes (which shares office space with Becker SWCD). “We couldn’t do this with any one funding source.”

Between all of these local, state and federal funding resources, approximately $1.7 million is anticipated to be spent on the two projects.

“There are a myriad of things that go into making sure that these funds are spent wisely and will go where they’re going to do the most good,” Musielewicz added.

NRCS and Becker SWCD will begin holding meetings with interested landowners sometime in the spring, he said.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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