For not having its own official identity among Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds, the Hawk Creek Watershed Project (HCWP) could well be considered an overachiever in terms of water quality protection and improvement efforts.

Over the past three years, HCWP has captured more than 25 percent of state and federal grants and loans in competition with all other watersheds.

Over a 20-year period it has turned $16 million in funds into more than 1,700 water quality projects in a primarily agricultural landscape.

Hawk Creek originates from Eagle Lake north of Willmar and flows about 65 miles to the Minnesota River, encompassing 623,424 acres (974 square miles) in major portions of Renville, Chippewa and Kandiyohi counties.

Officially, the Hawk Creek Watershed is a part of the Yellow Medicine River Watershed. Both streams enter the Minnesota River almost across from each other about eight miles southeast of Granite Falls.

The three counties created the HCWP in 1997 for: “Improving the water quality/quantity issues in the watershed, while also promoting a healthy agricultural, industrial and recreational-based economy for the region.”

In 2013, the counties formalized the organization in a joint powers agreement. Staff and leadership have been key to the project’s longevity and success.

The first coordinator, Loren Engelby, is now the agricultural inspector for Kandiyohi County. The next two coordinators, Darrell Schindler and Cory Netland, now work for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Heidi Rauenhorst took over as coordinator in 2012. An Olivia native, she returned bringing an impressive academic and professional resume.

Watershed project staffers Dean Dambroten and Jordan Austin put the grant funds to work on water quality projects, monitoring and outreach.

Currently, the watershed manages about $2 million in active grants. Most of that money goes for installation of water quality projects, such as buffer strips, bank stabilization, water storage and education and outreach.

Staff also monitor water quality and pesticides at a total of 36 sites in four watersheds among eight counties.

“We are very busy with water quality monitoring, implementing projects on the ground and planning and carrying out education and outreach activities,” Rauenhorst said. “We’ve been approached several times to take on additional water quality monitoring because of Jordan’s exceptional and meticulous monitoring work. We have several projects completed, in process or planned because of Dean’s 20-plus years of knowledge and expertise."

An estimated 98 percent of the original wetlands in the watershed have been drained for agriculture.

“We work with farmers and landowners to implement practices that are better for water quality while keeping ag land productive,” Rauenhorst said. “That could mean cover crops, reduced tillage or putting unproductive acres into perennial cover. Soil health is huge for reducing erosion and improving water quality, while still using the land for ag use. We’ve seen an increase in farmers using cover crops and reduced tillage, which is very encouraging, but we have a long way to go with it to see significant improvements in the water quality of the watershed. We need more acres where soil health is a priority.”

Under the state’s new one watershed one plan approach, water quality work is now organized by the natural boundaries of watersheds rather than county boundaries. Previously, counties developed their own water plans.

“The Hawk Creek Watershed Project is well-positioned to inform and implement the new approach, which is a statutorily required joint effort of the counties and soil and water conservation districts,” Rauenhorst said.

However, she added, the counties and soil and water conservation districts have chosen to not have the Hawk Creek Watershed Project play an important role in the process.

The HCWP did have an important role in developing and implementing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) watershed restoration and protection strategy for the watershed, which provides a scientific foundation for the water quality work.

- Photos and information courtesy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency