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Success Story

Minnesota’s Lakes are Cleaner This Summer Thanks to Farmers’ Conservation Efforts

Minnesota Lakes with Kayaks at Sunset

Efforts from farmers, the NRCS and their partners have resulted in delisting lakes from the Impaired Waters List in time for Minnesotans to enjoy the summer.

As Minnesotans are ready to enjoy the beautiful summer weather, lakes across the state have become increasingly cleaner due in part to restoration activities by local farmers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and their collaboration with a number of state agencies and organizations. 

 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced this spring that 15 Minnesota lakes would be removed from its impaired waters list for 2024 (Sabroski, 2023). The list is required by the federal Clean Waters Act and is updated every two years as a part of a nationwide effort to improve water quality (Sabroski, 2023). Common impairments include forever chemicals, PFAS and other stressors on fish and bug populations. Since the first lake was removed in 2004, conservation efforts have succeeded in delisting 64 lakes in the last 20 years (Sabroski, 2023). Half of these delistings occurred in the last three years; increased funding and collaboration have been cited as key reasons for this exponential progress (Strom et al., 2024).

 

The NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program and its independent assistance to farmers are instrumental in the continued improvement of Minnesota’s water quality. In April, the agency awarded the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources $25 million in RCPP funding for soil health initiatives (Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, 2023). Improving soil health prevents erosion and other issues from harming local water quality. This funding, as well as additional RCPP contributions to the One Watershed, One Plan initiative, opened the door for the BWSR to address the impaired waters list more directly.

A peaceful Minnesota lake.

Adobe Stock

 

The 1W1P initiative is a joint effort by organizations across the state to “align local water planning with state strategies on major watershed boundaries towards prioritized, targeted and measurable implementation plans” (Westerlund, 2017). These organizations, including the NRCS, consider the impaired waters list when crafting water plans, targeting their efforts to restoring these waters and protecting those at risk of becoming impaired (Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, 2021). The MPCA’s Clean Water Council utilizes these plans in its efforts to restore water quality statewide (Clean Water Council, 2024).

 

The Clean Water Council is made up of 28 representatives from organizations invested in protecting and healing Minnesota’s water quality (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, n.d.). The Council advises the state legislature and the governor regarding the appropriation of the Clean Water Fund, a pool of money utilized by seven state agencies partnering to “protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater from degradation” (Minnesota’s Legacy, n.d.). Since 2010, nearly $1.5 billion in CWF dollars have been appropriated by these agencies (Minnesota’s Legacy, n.d.). The 1W1P initiative, with its comprehensive watershed management plans, serves as a useful tool for agencies to ensure these large appropriations of money are used as efficiently as possible.

 

The NRCS’s partnerships with Soil and Water Conservation Districts across the state have also proven effective in improving the quality of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. SWCDs are administratively housed under the BWSR and are a critical partner in the NRCS’s conservation efforts. Partnering on a wide variety of conservation projects stretches SWCDs funding, allowing for more projects that address impaired waters to be completed. Work done by the Ramsey County SWCD keeping sediment out of Kohlman Lake was crucial to its delisting (Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, 2024). Further, more than $300k from the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program were leveraged by Wright SWCD in the delisting of North Fork Crow River, which, as it flows into the Mississippi River, becomes a source of drinking water for the Twin Cities metro area (Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, 2024). 

An aerial image of the Mississippi River

Adobe Stock

 

Lastly, the NRCS utilizes RCPP funds in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to fund the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, a voluntary program in which farmers get benefits for adopting practices that protect our soil and groundwater (Minnesota Department of Agriculture, n.d.). Unchecked erosion and unhealthy groundwater can have negative impacts for entire watersheds including lakes and streams. Water Quality Certified farmers and landowners play a crucial role in keeping soil and groundwater healthy so all Minnesotans can benefit from cleaner lakes and drinking water. As of February 2024, the NRCS has provided $16 million to this program and more than 1,300 farms have become Water Quality Certified (Minnesota’s Legacy, 2024).

 

Despite the hard work and progress made by farmers and conservationists across the state, there is still much work left to be done to heal Minnesota’s waters. From 2002-2022, 20 percent of the 3,500 lakes assessed by the MPCA were found to be impaired, and new bodies of water have been added to the impaired waters list every biennial report (Strom et al., 2024). However, a lake staying on the impaired list does not mean that its water quality has not significantly improved. Another positive trend is that only 54 bodies of water had impairments added to the 2024 report compared to 305 bodies in the 2022 report (Sabroski, 2023). 

 

Although the job is far from finished, the NRCS’s efforts with the MAWQCP, 1W1P, SWCDs, and its own Conservation Stewardship Program, EQIP and other Farm Bill programs have proven to be instrumental in healing impaired lakes, protecting healthy waters and making sure that Minnesotans across the state have an amazing summer.  

 

Click here to see the MPCA’s comprehensive list of impaired waters.

(Jacob Gustin is a public affairs specialist with USDA-NRCS Minnesota. He can be reached at jacob.gustin@usda.gov.)

Minnesota lake at sunset in the rain

Photo Credit: Lizzy Dawson

 

References:

Clean Water Council (2024, February 26). Draft Clean Water Council Strategic Plan for 2024-2028. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/wq-cwc2-24b.pdf

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. (2021). One Watershed, One Plan Guidebook. https://bwsr.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/2021-11/WP_1W1P_guidebook…

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (2023, November 2023). BWSR awarded $25M in NRCS RCPP funds to prioritize soil health [Press release]. https://bwsr.state.mn.us/node/11141

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (2024, March 7). Nine delistings tied to conservation work backed by Clean Water Funds. Medium, https://mnbwsr.medium.com/nine-delistings-tied-to-work-backed-by-clean-water-funds-8ebb4580c778

Minnesota Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Minnesota Department of Agriculture. https://www.mda.state.mn.us/environment-sustainability/minnesota-agricultural-water-quality-certification-program

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. (n.d.). Clean Water Council. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air-water-land-climate/clean-water-council

Minnesota’s Legacy. (2024). 2024 Clean Water Fund Performance. https://www.legacy.mn.gov/sites/default/files/resources/Clean-Water-Fund-Report-2-15-24.pdf

Minnesota’s Legacy. (n.d.). Clean Water Fund. Minnesota’s Legacy. https://www.legacy.mn.gov/clean-water-fundSabroski, H. (2023, November 14). Minnesota adds impairments in 54 streams and lakes to 2024 impaired waters list, fewest additions in recent years. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, https://www.pca.state.mn.us/news-and-stories/minnesota-adds-impairments…

Strom, J., Timm, A., Anderson, J., & MacLean, S. (2024). Twenty years of lake nutrient impairment: Delistings in Minnesota. LakeLine, Spring 2024. 

Westerlund, J. (2017, March 15). One Watershed, One Plan [A presentation to the Minnesota Forest Resources Council]. https://mn.gov/frc/assets/Meetings_Presentations_One-Watershed-One-Plan…