The Hawk Creek Watershed Project, headquartered on the ground floor of the Renville County Courthouse in Olivia, has a three-person staff that works mostly out of the public view on projects that few people ever see. It’s a modest, behind-the-scenes setting that belies the organization’s reach.
Over the past three years, the HCWP has garnered about 25 percent of the federal funds that have been granted to watershed agencies in Minnesota – money those groups use for drainage ditches, embankments, rain gardens and other projects designed to protect local waters.
The organization was created two decades ago by three counties in this west-central Minnesota region of corn and sugar-beet growers, where much of the wetlands had been drained for agricultural use.
“Our ultimate goal is to improve the water quality in our watershed,” HCWP coordinator Heidi Rauenhorst said.
Minnesota has 81 “watersheds” – geographical areas defined by the state Department of Natural Resources whose boundaries are determined by the contour of their lakes, rivers and wetlands. The idea behind their creation was to help local governments with flood control, land-use planning and other measures.
About half of these watersheds have “districts” led by county appointed boards. The Hawk Creek Watershed Project is a similar entity, created by Renville, Chippewa and Kandiyohi counties; it’s named after a tributary that runs from Eagle Lake, north of Willmar, to the Minnesota River near Granite Falls.
Over the past two decades, the HCWP has spent about $16 million on more than 1,700 projects. It works on 20 or 30 projects each year and is currently managing about $2 million in grant money. The HCWP installed water and sediment control basins on fields last year and is currently constructing water-retention ponds. It routinely tests water for phosphorus and other chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “319” grant program is a significant source of funding for watersheds. Over the past three years, the HCWP has captured about one-fourth of the money that the program has spent in Minnesota, according to Rauenhorst. (Watershed “districts” tap that fund, as well, but also have taxing authority and other ways to generate revenue).
As the HCWP’s coordinator, Rauenhorst applies for the money – a process she likened, only half-jokingly, to the writing of a research paper in college. Some applications can take several weeks to complete.
Michael Weckwerth, a watershed project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Marshall, said the group does a good job of vetting projects and then finding money for them. “They are very good at identifying what they can accomplish,” he said, “and I think that is what sets them apart.”
Finding the ‘happy medium’
Besides its work on specific projects, the Hawk Creek Watershed Project acts as a kind of honest broker among the often-competing interests in conservation: farmers, state regulators, local environmentalists, city and county officials. The group often hosts meetings about potential projects, the farm economy or other issues.
Joe Sullivan, the president of the Renville County Farm Bureau, has worked with the HCWP on a cost-sharing program for cover crops – those planted to protect soil health – which he plants on his farm near Franklin. He said the group has done a good job of “finding the happy medium between what is truly beneficial and (what is) far-fetched.”
Rauenhorst’s colleagues are Dean Dambroten, the HCWP’s planner and field technician, and Jordan Austin, its water quality and outreach technician.
Rauenhorst and Dambroten grew up in the Olivia area – Rauenhorst on a beef cattle farm north of town and Dambroten, interestingly enough, on a farm near Hawk Creek. He continues to farm in Renville County.
Dambroten got involved with the HCWP in 2000, mainly because he needed the work during a challenging time for his farm – then discovered that he could be a bridge between agricultural and environmental interests.
“Twenty years ago, environmentalists and farmers butted heads, to the point of yelling at each other at meetings,” he said. “We don’t see that as much anymore. We want to bring them together, and part of that is that I think they trust us.”
Some of the initiatives the group promotes are becoming more widely accepted, such as tillage reduction measures and the cover crops that Sullivan plants.
“It can be a slow process in the farm economy,” Rauenhorst said. “We take baby steps. The number of people coming to, say, cover crop and soil meetings – each year the attendance seems to grow. We’re definitely seeing more interest.”