The Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District hosted a Root River watershed conversation at the Spring Valley ambulance station last Tuesday evening. Citizens of the Spring Valley area were invited to share what their concerns and ideas might be regarding the health of the watershed. Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District Director Donna Rasmussen explains the concept to the crowd gathered. PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
The Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District hosted a Root River watershed conversation at the Spring Valley ambulance station last Tuesday evening. Citizens of the Spring Valley area were invited to share what their concerns and ideas might be regarding the health of the watershed. Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District Director Donna Rasmussen explains the concept to the crowd gathered. PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Local citizens came together Tuesday in Spring Valley to have a conversation about steps needed to protect the Root River watershed.

"The Root River watershed is in a very diverse landscape that leads to very diverse land use. There's no 'one size fits all' - it has to be tailored to the landscape, and the karst topography makes that more difficult." said Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Director Donna Rasmussen, speaking to a gathering of Spring Valley area residents who had come to the Spring Valley ambulance station to discuss the health and future of the Root River watershed, which spans several counties and serves as a basis for economic, agricultural and recreational growth.

"We all live in a watershed. No matter where you live or what you do, it has an impact on the water," explained Rasmussen. "A lot of point sources have been addressed, but now we're talking about cumulative effects."

Rasmussen explained that the SWCD chose to hold the Root River watershed gathering, one of six held throughout the Root River's watershed region, to get diverse input on practices that can help a watershed. Since 2008, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been doing a lot of monitoring on the river, doing intensive water pollution checks. There are 81 watersheds in the state, and every year, it has been doing about eight. In about 10 years, they'll come back to this one and do it again.

"It's not just about contamination or pollution - it's about the biology, it's that the things that can live in the water and on the banks tell a lot about how healthy the watershed is, it's about the volume of water eroding the stream banks," she said. "A watershed plan helps us do things to correct the problems, and in that process, we're trying to get as many diverse perspectives as we can, learn about the barriers to adopting good practices that fit the landscape and the communities we live in."

The director and conversation facilitators - including Tim Gossman of rural Chatfield, Bill Sullivan of Pilot Mound - posed four questions for attendees to answer through an interview process that required participants to find a partner, ask those questions and record answers, beginning with "What do people know about the water quality of the Root River?" followed by "What actions are needed to improve the water quality?", "What challenges are preventing people from taking action?" and finally, "What information would be helpful to motivate people to protect water quality?"

The pairs then answered each question individually, resulting in first-round answers that named "sediment, rising water temperature, increased turbidity, runoff and people not aware of the watershed" as items of concern and understanding about the Root River watershed, the need for "placing more buffers, enacting no- and reduced-till farming, laying additional grasslands, asking towns to control salt runoff and being careful where they dump snow" as points of action, barriers considered to be "the cost in dollars, the lack of information on water quality and what's needed to address it, competing interests, uncooperative people, the need to know who to contact for help, economic competition and apathy," and the information deemed helpful to be "resources made available to the general public for information on watersheds, information on long-term effects of inaction, and the understanding that water quality is different than it was 25 years ago."

Rasmussen asked the participants to "ultimately summarize the group's thoughts" on local watershed health by working as a team, with one question to each team. The first team answered the first question, summing it up as "people do realize that we need good grass coverage in sinkholes and barrier strips, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about water quality, some people think it is better, and others are unsure about the harmful substances in the water."

The second team answered the question about what action is needed, replying, "People want to manage storm water runoff, promote responsible pesticide and nutrient management, place more buffers and filter strips, and make room for more water retention areas."

The third team addressed what barriers stand between ideas and action, saying, "It's the cost of implementation, there's no knowledge or a lack of knowledge of information on helpful contacts, people fear change, and there's apathy or people who just don't care."

The fourth team concurred that there is "a lack of knowledge or education on how to find information" but that it is important to have that information available, and pointed out that "everybody needs to be accountable for their actions, we need farmer-led conversations and meetings, and the media plays an important role in how it proceeds."

Rasmussen thanked the participants - ranging from 11 years to senior citizens - for their input, noting that the information gathered at the forum would be gleaned for the SWCD's uses in compiling a watershed plan to protect the Root River watershed. She also shared opportunities for citizens to volunteer for the county as citizen stream water samplers or precipitation monitors, lending a hand where it's needed to ensure that the watershed's diverse future is secure.