Improving the hydrological health of the Root River in southeastern Minnesota is imperative in a watershed that is particularly vulnerable to erosion and runoff. The Root River starts as a drainage ditch in Mower County, then winds 81 miles before finally emptying into the Mississippi River south of La Crosse, Wis. The river flows through the Driftless Area and it is characterized by intensely farmed rolling uplands, bluffs, deep valleys, well and moderately drained silty soils and karst geology. Contaminated surface water can rapidly infiltrate through soils or directly enter the subsurface via sinkholes. This can pollute aquifers used for drinking water or groundwater that may supply trout streams. Some streams are on the impaired waters list and habitat is threatened.
One key way to improve water quality in the 1.07 million-acre watershed is through the establishment of more continuous living cover on farmland 365-days-a-year. Given that 97 percent of the watershed is in private hands, that means reaching out to farmers and other landowners whenever possible. Estimates indicate there are approximately 3,000 farms in the watershed. Approximately 57 percent of the operations are less than 180 acres in size, 39 percent are from 180 to 1,000 acres in size, and the remaining farms are greater than 1,000 acres in size. Agricultural trends are toward fewer and larger farms with increased field size, more soybeans and decreasing acreage in forage, small grains and pasture, as well as fewer ruminant animals on the land.
From 2009 to 2017, the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) engaged with a group of farmers and other landowners in the watershed to promote practical, profitable methods of getting more continuous living cover on a working landscape, in the process building soil health and improving water quality. Through this initiative, LSP utilized: 1) one-to-one conversations, 2) field days/workshops, 3) team building, 4) on-farm research, 5) outreach to non-farming landowners, 6) media outreach, 7) tool development, and 8) partner engagement. These strategies/tools were used to help watershed residents learn about the advantages to using cover cropping, managed rotational grazing and other methods to keep the land covered year-round.
For more information in this initiative, check out this fact sheet.