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A history written in mud

Sun, Aug 6th, 2000
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Soil erosion in southeastern MinnesotaBy By Wayne PikeMonday, August 7, 2000

It has been said that the history of mankind could be written in mud. No matter where humans settle, we disturb the natural balance by harvesting trees, grazing livestock, and growing crops. The end result is soil erosion by water. The history of mankind in Fillmore County seems to be following the same course. Fortunately, there are forces at work to divert this devastating course of soil erosion history.

Some soil erosion may be inevitable due to the power of a summer storm. An inch of rainfall on an acre consists of about 27,000 gallons of water weighing over 100 tons. Even though each raindrop is, by itself, almost insignificant, the total energy contained in all those raindrops is the same as if a 100-ton block of steel had been dropped from the sky. Something on the ground has to absorb all this energy. Trees, crops, and other living vegetation get hit again and again, absorbing energy and diverting the water gently to the ground. Even dead plant material, like last years cornstalks, break the fall of the water and reduce the impact of the raindrops on the soil surface. Heavy rains of six inches or more, like those that have fallen on southeast Minnesota this spring and summer, contain so much energy that almost no erosion control techniques could prevent at least some soil erosion.

Soil erosion begins when raindrops impact the soil directly. As the soil absorbs the energy, small particles of soil bounce into the air and begin to move down the slope. As the particles fall, they hit other soil particles, and so begin a cascade of soil and water, all heading down hill, mobilizing more soil as it goes. If the water volume is large enough, the soil eventually ends up in our rivers and possibly even the Gulf of Mexico.

According to Soil and Water Conservation literature, "silt remains Americas worst water pollutant". It would be bad enough if this was just "dirt", but this is the finest and most valuable of our topsoil that carries with it millions of dollars worth of plant nourishment.

The amount of soil removed by water erosion is difficult to measure. However, as a rule of thumb, it is estimated that a layer of soil one-acre in area and the thickness of a dime (one-twentieth of an inch) weighs about 8 tons. Another rule of thumb is that if one can see the erosion, then this 8-ton per acre erosion figure has been exceeded. That is almost the same as losing one very big dump truck full of topsoil down the river.

In southeast Minnesota, tolerable soil loss is 5 tons per acre per year. This is called the "T" factor and is considered tolerable because it is assumed that 5 tons per acre per year is the natural replacement rate for soil.

Fillmore and Houston counties are particularly prone to soil erosion because of their hilly topography. During the 1930s and 1940s, some forward thinking Fillmore County citizens recognized the countys tendency to erode and worked hard to provide a legacy of leading conservation efforts. Perhaps largest among such efforts was the East Willow Creek Watershed project begun in 1953. (See Al Mathisons article Dam-O-Rama was 40 years ago in the August 3, 1998 issue of the Fillmore County Journal.) That project was a joint federal and local effort that involved over 150 farms and 24,000 acres. The cost of the project was almost $450,000 in 1953. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to almost $3,000,000 in todays dollars.

Soil conservation efforts, though not as extensive as the East Willow Creek project, are still going on today in Fillmore County. Kevin Scheidecker is the district administrator for the Fillmore Soil and Water Conservation District. He is responsible for the local application of the thirty or so different conservation and environmental farming programs that are part of the United States Department of Agricultures Soil Conservation Service.

Scheidecker points out that participation in most SWCD programs is voluntary. However, farmers who participate in Farm Service Agency programs must have a conservation plan in effect in order to earn annual transition payments. These conservation plans include practices such as crop rotation and reduced tillage options. If farmers are found to be non-compliant with their plans, their transition payments and participation in other programs may be in jeopardy.
Soil Loss Ordinance

Fillmore County does have a soil loss ordinance that forbids the management of agricultural land in such a manner that allows excess erosion. The ordinance comes into effect when someone sees soil erosion and signs a complaint. The county attorney and zoning officials then take over to enforce the ordinance. The SWCD offices role is to document the soil loss that has taken place. According to Scheidecker, the current ordinance has not been tested in court and does not seem to "have any teeth to it".

Scheidecker explains that recent catastrophic floods have brought more attention to soil erosion and water quality. "Some of the water that came into Preston in our last flood might have come from as far away as six miles into Mower County. That is how far this watershed extends."

In addition to good flood control planning in the cities, water control measures taken upstream help immensely. Scheidecker says, "We forget about the upland treatment to slow runoff. Upland treatment slows down the peak of floods and makes flooding in town much less severe."

Most of the upland treatment techniques that help to prevent erosion have been in use for many years. For example, grass waterways in fields allow water to flow through established grass rather than over unprotected soils. Scheidecker says, "Everybody should be able to tell where they need waterways this year."

Because conservation efforts ultimately benefit downstream populations as well as the land occupiers who implement the erosion control techniques, tax dollars are available to cover some of the costs of establishing and maintaining erosion control. Many of the SWCD programs involve cost-sharing that pays farmers some portion of the costs of establishing and maintaining erosion control treatments. In 1999, the Fillmore SWCD used over a quarter million dollars of state and federal monies to share the costs of establishing terraces, waterways, and diversions with county landowners and occupiers. This figure does not include the salaries and benefits of the local SWCD staff.

SWCD responsibilities also include programs for tree planting, conservation tillage, public awareness, education, and programs that cooperate with urban areas. There are several grant programs and cost-sharing programs including feedlot management, wetlands, and forestry.

Besides Scheidecker, other SWCD employees are Dave Aldeen, Bob Joachim, Rick Grooters, Doug Keene, Jeremy Maul, and Tiffany Scheevel. A locally elected board of directors guides them. The current board consists of Brian Hazel, Richard OConnor, Sue Schrage, Eleanor Junge, and Tim Gossman. The board members are responsible for helping to direct the activities of the staff.

Farmer and Conservationist

Richard OConnor, SWCD supervisor, is a conservation-minded farmer. He lives among the rolling hills north of Mabel and promotes the efforts of SWCD. He would like to see more effort, more money, and more motivation provided to enhance all forms of soil conservation. He explains that many government programs seem to work counter to good soil conservation by encouraging the production of corn and soybeans, thereby discouraging grass production. OConnor believes that programs that promote grasses will help control erosion and will bring cattle back to the area. More cattle bring more grass and better erosion control.

OConnor specifically me

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