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Becker County awarded Clean Water Fund grant: $800K will keep improvements flowing at Buffalo River Watershed

A drone photo shows an erosion control project nearing completion in Callaway Township this past fall. The project treated 450 acres to eliminate a chief contributor of sediment to the upper reaches of the Buffalo River. New grant dollars will allow for accelerated planning and construction of similar measures throughout Becker County's portion of the Buffalo River Watershed. (Photo courtesy Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District)

Becker County is a big beneficiary in the latest round of Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund grants, and the funds will be used for big improvements to a significant water resource in the region.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources on Dec. 19 approved $13.7 million in Clean Water Fund grants, awarding 52 grants for various conservation projects that will improve water quality across the state.

Of those grants, the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is set to receive the second-largest allocation, of $796,061. Those funds will be used to bolster ongoing efforts to control excessive erosion, sedimentation and nutrient loading in the upper reaches of the Buffalo River Watershed.

“This project offers ecologic, economic and intrinsic benefits locally, regionally and statewide,” according to the grant application submitted by the Becker County SWCD. “The first sector to experience a benefit will be the 380 farms in the project area. The next sector benefitting includes both locals and the thousands that visit each year — (for) water-based recreation and tourism. Further, it protects the health of drinking water for area residents and the surface and groundwater supply of tens of thousands.”

The Buffalo River is a major tributary to the Red River of the North. It recharges the Buffalo Aquifer, which provides a majority of the annual drinking water supply to more than 46,000 people around Moorhead and Dilworth. The waterway is home to more than 40 different species of fish and is surrounded by significant wildlife habitat. Recreational opportunities within the watershed include fishing, canoeing, kayaking and hunting.

Studies in recent years have shown that water quality conditions in the watershed are generally poor. Reaches of the Buffalo River in Becker County were first listed as impaired in 2009, and 12 lakes were listed in 2012. Since then, the SWCD has worked in collaboration with state and local partners, local governments, agricultural producers and concerned citizens to develop water quality restoration and protection strategies throughout the watershed.

SWCD Administrator Peter Mead said those efforts have been successful so far, and this latest (and largest, to date) grant award is expected to help continue that pattern of success. The SWCD was first awarded a Clean Water Fund grant related to the Buffalo River Watershed in 2012, Mead said, and has received grant funding on and off in the years since.

Those previous grant funds have always been used up “pretty quickly,” he added, thanks to a “phenomenal” level of engagement by local stakeholders.

Thus this time around, the SWCD aimed high in its grant request, knowing the dollars would be well utilized. Only one other project in the state, a Hennepin County conservation effort affecting the Mississippi River, received a higher allocation, of an even $800,000.

“Our continued success in securing Clean Water Legacy Funds is due in no small part to the Becker County agricultural community’s willingness to make real, lasting changes on the landscape,” said Mead. “We’re here to help people help the land, and a windfall like this makes the job just that much easier.”

Efforts funded by the new grant will “put project partners well over the hump in addressing daunting reduction goals,” according to the grant application. Sediment loading to the Buffalo River is expected to be reduced by an estimated 32,712 tons per year, phosphorus loading by 21,083 pounds per year and nitrogen loading by 24,322 pounds per year.

“When coupled with previous and current efforts,” the application states, it will yield “a combined 73 percent reduction.”

Studies have shown that more than one-third of all the monitored lakes in the watershed exceed nutrient (phosphorus) standards and are impaired for aquatic recreation use due to excessive sediment and bacteria and reduced biological abundances. Several more are close to becoming impaired. In addition, elevated bacteria levels are a problem in a lot of the streams.

Most of the land around the watershed is used for agriculture and is highly cultivated, with altered watercourses and hydrology, intensive drainage and a lack of buffers around lakes and streams.

It’s not surprising, then, that most of the grant dollars are reserved for agricultural purposes. Funds will help pay for cover crops, grade stabilizations, the installation of water and sediment control basins, grassed waterways, filter strips, wetland restoration and other ag projects and best management practices that will improve conditions in and around the Buffalo River. Bacterial impairments will also be addressed through livestock exclusion, nutrient management and rotational grazing.

A required 25 percent match to the grant, totaling $199,015, will come from landowner contributions toward project expenses as well as funds leveraged through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

In total, the Becker County SWCD has received nearly $5.3 million in Clean Water Fund grants since 2012 to address problems in the Buffalo River Watershed.

The Buffalo River flows westward from North Tamarack Lake, north of Detroit Lakes. Communities that lie within the watershed include Glyndon, Hawley, Lake Park, Audubon, Callaway, Georgetown and Barnesville.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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