Protecting water quality in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Minnesota soil, water conservation groups battle erosion, pollution

Ol’ Man River, a.k.a. the Mighty Mississippi, just keeps rolling along.

But in Minnesota, too much water and too much development are threatening water quality in the upper Mississippi watershed—a network of hundreds of lakes, and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams.

In 2012, record rainfall caused soil erosion along riverbanks in the area. Urban development is aggravating the issue, with rainwater—unable to drain into the ground because of more impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete—gushes into these bodies of water. And declining water quality completes the worrisome trifecta, since rainwater carries with it oils and salts—polluting drinking water sources, and the fish and wildlife relying on them for survival.

“Our big emphasis for the last several years has been slowing down runoff and getting the shoreline to reflect a more natural surface area,” says Steve Hughes, district manager of the Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), located north of Minneapolis.

A more natural landscape, Hughes explains, features varied surfaces that can cope with excess water. “If we can mimic that,” he says, “we can slow down the runoff and filter out salts and oils before they get to the lakes and rivers.”

For interested landowners, the Aitkin County SWCD presents two options:

  • they can create a rain garden, a depression in the ground that catches excess water, allowing it to be absorbed into the ground; or
  • plant native vegetation—grasses, flowers, trees—to stabilize the soil on the shoreline.

Since 2012, the Aitkin County SWCD has installed approximately 2.5 miles of natural shoreline buffer and 21 rain gardens. A typical project costs around $4,500; owners contribute 25 percent, while the organization applies for funding to cover the rest.

Enbridge’s three-year, $3-million Ecofootprint Grant Program, launched in spring 2015, provides funding to organizations that advance locally based environmental priorities in communities in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin along our Sandpiper and Line 3 Replacement projects.

In 2015, we awarded grants totalling nearly $1 million to environmental projects—including $114,000 to the Aitkin County SWCD, says Enbridge’s Cindy Finch, a senior public affairs advisor based in Duluth-Superior.

With Enbridge’s funding, Hughes anticipates that the Aitkin County SWCD will be able to build about 25 rain gardens, and plant native vegetation along a mile of shoreline.

More than 200 miles northwest of Aitkin County, the Red Lake Soil and Water Conservation District is involved in similar projects—and received an Ecofootprint grant for $78,905 from Enbridge.

“Without external funds, we wouldn’t be able to do these projects,” says district manager Tanya Hanson, whose organization received a grant from the state, but needed to find a match for 25 percent of the value. With Enbridge’s match, she expects to install 15 projects.

“The Ecofootprint grant allows groups to support environmental issues relevant to their communities,” says Finch.

Adds Hughes: “We can do an awful lot of good with the funding.”