Conversations continue on funding for county-wide water quality efforts; CRWD releases annual 2017 report

Published 8:40 am Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Talks concerning water quality and conservation efforts made by the county didn’t subside during Tuesday morning’s special session.

After the Izaak Walton League’s presentation that took place during the June 5 regular session, county officials have continued dialogue concerning the issue of water quality. One of the issues that were addressed by the Ikes was for around 1,700 homeowners across Mower County to bring their septic systems up to compliance near Dobbins Creek North and South by the end of the year, and all homes throughout the county by 2020.

An ongoing issue was the amount of money it would take to ensure complete compliance checks for residents.  An average cost of replacing a septic system out-of-pocket cost about $20,000, and many homeowners struggle to find ways to bring their systems up to compliance because of the high costs despite low-interest rate loans that are currently available, according to Commissioner Jerry Reinartz.

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The Ikes had also supported public assistance for lower income individuals to bring their systems up to compliance.

However, exact solutions for improving water quality would take additional time, according to Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, and that Mower County had been continuing conversations about improving their waters for years, but the exact timeframe would take longer than a year to solve those issues.

“This has been an ongoing thing and a work in progress,” Oscarson stated.

It was also requested by the Ikes to work with corporate and business partners as well as the agricultural community to address contamination from manure spreading and hog rearing, and for working with the agricultural community to reduce fecal contamination from waterways.

There were some drawbacks from the presentation, however. Although key players such as the Cedar River Watershed District (CRWD) and the Mower Soil and River Conservation District (SWCD) had lauded the Ikes and their commitment to ensuring cleaner water, there were some criticisms made toward news outlets such as the Star Tribune and television stations regarding “misleading” information over the Cedar River’s elevated E.coli bacteria levels, and how it was considered “dangerous” for human skin contact and discouraged boating, swimming and wading.

Several agencies such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the University of Minnesota had done studies on the Cedar River.

Despite elevated E.coli levels agencies have not determined that the river was unsafe for paddlers and kayakers to use for water recreation, according to a previous story, and that the elevated levels of E.Coli bacteria were not an isolated issue in Mower County, rather an ongoing issue for many rural counties in the region due to surface water run-off after heavy rain events.

Dobbins Creek and the Cedar River were listed by Minnesota as “impaired” for aquatic life and turbidity — “cloudiness” — of the water, watershed officials acknowledged, but the information had prompted several members of the public to approach officials, and telling them that they were scared to go onto the waterways because of E.coli bacterial levels.

“We need to be careful,” said Justin Hanson, CRWD/SWCD administrator to the county board. “I do appreciate the Ikes and they’ve been a great partner. There were some unintended consequences. We acknowledge that there’s work that needs to be done, and those opportunities we would like to continue working on with the county and the Ikes.”

The Ikes had monitored water quality in 2017 at 83 sites across the CRWD, and found that “70 percent” of their 500 collected samples indicated E.coli bacteria that exceeded health standards, with three DNA sources matching human, swine and cattle bacterial contamination from seven of the monitoring sites.

Austin Daily Herald attempted to contact Larry Dolphin, a member of the Izaak Walton League, but did not receive comment by press time.

E.coli bacteria is considered a complex bacteria and pollutant to study and can come from multiple sources such as septic systems, human waste, agricultural fertilizer on farmland and natural E.coli from birds, deer and other native animals. So far, the CRWD had been doing extra studies on elevated E.coli in Dobbins Creek to determine highest concentrations of bacterial colonies and doing some additional water monitoring.

Tim Ruzek, SWCD water planner and outreach coordinator, also expressed his disappointment regarding the information surrounding the CRWD that was being circulated, and that there was “fear” from outdoor enthusiasts about entering the water.

“We’ve had some good conversations, but we missed an opportunity to get people out onto the water,” Ruzek stated. “It’s really discouraging people from going into the water and interacting with it.”

Annual CRWD report released

During the session, the CRWD presented their 2017 report that highlighted the efforts done through the watershed districts and county-wide initiatives to help promote clean water and better environmental practices:

Notable highlights

•CRWD monitored streams and water sources to determine if the quality had been improving or degrading over time. According to the report, from March to October, the watershed received many rain events over the year, but were low intensity or short duration, which resulted in abnormally little surface runoff, which was a positive for the water quality as pollutant contaminations in 2017 were lower than normal.

• Last fall, crews planted grass and made other “final touches” to the berms in Austin Township as part of the watershed district’s five-year $8.4 million Capital Improvement Project (CIP) to build 26 structures on farm land to improve water quality and reduce flooding.

Despite the berms being the only CIP projects currently planned south of Austin, they were considered high-priority to catch a lot of sediment before reaching the Cedar River.

CIP project sites were determined through a hydro-engineering study funded by the CRWD to identify areas in the watershed where investment would leverage the most results for water quality and flood reductions.

Most CIP projects are planned for headwaters and upland areas in the watershed, majority currently targeting the Dobbins Creek watershed, which is prone to flash flooding. Dobbins’ two branches meet at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center before becoming East Side Lake because of a dam and flowing into the Cedar River in Driesner Park.

•CRWD celebrated the new walk-in river access behind Marcusen Park baseball stadium on Austin’s south side.

•The Canoemobile that arrived at the Cedar River State Water Trail on Ramsey Mill Pond had 366 students from 4th and 6th grade paddle on the Cedar River, and 175 students served indoors because of the cold and the rain. More than 450 people paddled overall.

•CRWD moved into the plan development for their 1W1P initiative in Austin to learn protecting and improving local waterways. Partners from Dodge, Freeborn, Mower and Steel Counties along with the CRWD, Turtle Creek Watershed District and the city of Austin, are all working together on the Cedar River 1W1P initiative.