Seven years ago, Plum Creek was added to the state’s impaired waters list, a list of the bodies of water in Minnesota that don't meet water quality standards. The stream, located between the Mississippi River and Warner Lake in Stearns County, was impaired for E. coli bacteria. While E. coli doesn’t typically cause disease, it is used by the MPCA as an indicator for other types of harmful organisms that can be in the water from animal or human waste.
Jerry Finch, a local township supervisor in 2014, wanted to fix the problem. Finch felt he needed more knowledge and skills to make it happen, so at the suggestion of MPCA staff, he turned to the University of Minnesota. “I went to the U and signed up for the watershed specialist course,” he says.
Finch earned his watershed specialist certification with mentoring from the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Finch used what he learned to organize about 20 other people who live near the creek into the Plum Creek Neighborhood Network. They worked closely with the local township board, the county SWCD, MPCA, the University of Minnesota, and St. John’s University. “That’s the secret to it,” Finch says. “One group can’t do it alone. Most rewarding in all this was all the help we received.”
Much of the work done by the network and its partners was trying to figure out where the bacteria was coming from. Finch was involved in the intensive monitoring for E. coli that was done in Plum Creek over several years. The monitoring revealed levels spiked during heavy rain events/high creek flows, indicating soil from field erosion and streambed sediments were likely the most significant sources of bacteria. Waste from leaking septic systems and wildlife were also possible sources. Inspections identified several areas near the creek susceptible to erosion.
Based on what the groups learned, the local SWCD led several projects to reduce the impact of these potential sources:
- Erosion control structure constructed to address erosion from a county road culvert
- Suspect septic systems upgraded or replaced
- Water quality structure installed to address field erosion entering the creek
- Buffer installed on interstate highway right-of-way near the creek, in partnership with MnDOT
- Area farmers adopted new tillage and planting practices to reduce erosion
The work of the network, state and local partners, and landowners made the difference. Monitoring conducted in 2019 by the Stearns County SWCD with assistance from volunteer Ted Stevens showed average E. coli counts dropped low enough that the Plum Creek is now meeting water quality standards related to bacteria.
Finch was very happy to hear the news about Plum Creek being delisted. “That was our mission.”