In Becker County, protecting local water resources is about more than just aesthetics; it’s essential to the continued health and growth of the region’s tourism and agriculture-based economy.

To give the public an opportunity to learn more about the resources available to them to assist with the fight for clean water, as well as to hear citizen input with regard to their own concerns about water quality, the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) has scheduled a couple of informational meetings in the coming weeks.

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The first is set to take place this Thursday, March 17 at the Callaway Community Center from 9 a.m. to noon,, while the second is set for Tuesday, April 12 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Becker County Courthouse.

This Thursday’s meeting, according to SWCD Administrator Peter Mead, is actually the third in a series of landowner forums being co-hosted by Becker SWCD and the Detroit Lakes office of the USDA’s Natural Resource & Conservation Service (NRCS),.at various locations around the county.

“The first took place on Jan. 21 in Lake Park, and the second was held on Feb. 18 in Wolf Lake, Mead said. “There will be a fourth one, co-hosted by Clay County, on April 7 in Hawley… because water doesn’t respect political boundaries.”

The discussion, which varies slightly from location to location, has centered on giving ag landowners an update on changes to state conservation law that were enacted last year, during a special legislative session held in St. Paul last July.

“There will now be a 50-foot buffer zone required between ag active ag production land and any adjoining public water bodies (lakes, rivers, streams),” Mead said. “There was also a 16½ foot buffer zone requirement added for all public ditch systems.”

Farmers will have some time to enact these changes, however; the 50-foot mandatory buffer zone requirement won’t take effect until Nov. 1, 2017, while the compliance date for implementing buffer zones adjacent to public ditch system will become law on Nov. 1, 2018.

“It’s a law that’s already been on the books since 1997, so it’s not a new concept,” Mead said. “But there was no real enforcement mechanism, unless a county chose to adopt a local ordinance – and only a handful of counties have done that.”

There are some state and federal grant and loan programs available, however, that can help alleviate some of the up-front costs of implementing the new, permanent vegetation buffer zones, as well as soil erosion prevention measures.

“We will discuss the programs available for financial assistance, such as CRP,” Mead said, “and we’ll talk about the SWCD soil health initiative as well.”

This initiative aims to “encourage local farmers to use cover crops, nutrient management, conservation tillage and residue management, to help build soil health as well as improve its fertility and infiltration (i.e., permeability),” he added.

Becker SWCD is also working with farmers on the eastern edge of the county, where irrigation systems are more heavily featured on the landscape, on a program that will allow them to schedule their irrigation use more effectively.

“The goal is to increase and manage productivity on these lands, while minimizing the risk to groundwater,” said Mead.

Mead also said the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR) has also made some funding available to work cooperatively with farmers in the Straight Lake Groundwater Management Area “on implementing innovative technology like remote controlled irrigation.”

All of these programs and more will be discussed at the March 17 meeting, which is free and open to the public, he added.

The April 12 meeting, meanwhile, will be hosted by Becker SWCD in the commissioners’ meeting room at the county courthouse. The purpose of this meeting, which is also free and open to the public, will be to hear citizen input on the development of a new Comprehensive Local Water Management Plan for Becker County.

The Becker County Board of Commissioners assigned implementation of that plan to the local SWCD in 2015, Mead said, adding, “public involvement is an important part of the water management planning process.”

Those unable to attend the meeting, or who would like to provide a more in-depth response, are welcome to fill out an online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/mywaterplan, or www.co.becker.mn.us/dept/soil_water, or request to have a paper copy of the survey provided by calling Becker SWCD at 218-846-7360.

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