Winnebago River Watershed: Practices and plans underway to restore water quality

Contact: Cathy Malakowsky, 507-383-5949

According to reports released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Winnebago River Watershed in southern Minnesota faces several water quality challenges, including high levels of nutrients and bacteria. Landowners and producers have implemented several practices to reduce those pollutants and improve water quality. And more are in the works, thanks to Freeborn County drainage management plans and efforts by the Freeborn Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently completed two studies of the watershed:

  • The total maximum daily load (TMDL) study identifies bodies of water that fail to meet water-quality standards (known as “impaired” waters), the sources of pollution, and how much pollution reduction is needed to restore the waters’ ability to support swimming, fishing, and healthy fish and bug populations.
  • The watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) report recommends ways to protect waters that are in good condition, and improve impaired waters.

The two studies show that, like most southern Minnesota watersheds, the Winnebago River Watershed suffers from extensive alterations to its natural hydrology — streams converted to ditches, tile drainage installed under farmland, and wetlands drained — which has harmed fish and bug populations. None of the streams studied meet the state standard for aquatic life, meaning there are fewer fish and bugs and less species variety than expected for the type of waters.

The studies are part of the MPCA’s approach to gauging the health of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds. After intensive water monitoring, the agency and partners evaluate biological conditions in lakes and streams. Waters that fail to meet standards are placed on the Impaired Waters List, and the agency develops information and strategies that are used to restore impaired waters and protect healthy ones.

The Winnebago River Watershed consists of a stream and lake system that flows into Iowa and joins the Cedar River, which is the source of drinking water for Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Pollutants in the headwaters on the Minnesota side affect thousands of people downstream.

Freeborn County is working with landowners to implement practices to:

  • Reduce high phosphorus and bacteria levels in Lime Creek from Bear Lake to the Iowa border. Phosphorus can lead to severe algae outbreaks that hurt aquatic life and recreation. Bacteria can make water unsafe for swimming and other contact recreation.
  • Reduce high phosphorus and algae levels in Bear and State Line lakes.
  • Reduce high levels of nitrogen in Steward Creek that can hurt aquatic life and impact downstream drinking-water sources.
  • Increase levels of dissolved oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life.
  • Improve habitat for fish and bugs in Steward Creek and other streams in the watershed.

Because 85 percent of land in the watershed is used for agriculture, the Freeborn SWCD is working with landowners on:

  • Better managing nutrient and manure application on agricultural fields
  • Expanding the use of soil health practices
  • Restoring wetlands to increase water storage
  • Converting parts of existing ditches to two-stage ditches, which are more stable and decrease nutrient levels
  • Ensuring septic systems and animal feedlots are not contributing bacteria to the watershed

Both these reports provide information that will be used to develop the Shell Rock River/Winnebago One Watershed One Plan for implementing projects.

The MPCA expects the watershed to meet its phosphorus reduction goal and most of its nitrogen reduction goal if current practices are maintained and proposed practices are implemented.

The MPCA is asking for public comments on the two reports, which are available on the MPCA web site. Mail or email written comments to Emily Zanon, MPCA, 18 Wood Lake Drive SE, Rochester, MN 55904 by 4:30 p.m. on May 20. Call her at 507-206-2613 for more information.

Written comments must include a statement of the respondent’s interest in the report, and the action requested of the MPCA, including specific references to sections of the draft document(s) that should be changed, and the reasons for making those changes.