Excellent Education Leadership at the Local Level

Located in International Falls, MN, Koochiching Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) strives to serve the public when it comes to natural resources education. It is, in fact, in our mission statement! “The mission of the Koochiching SWCD is to conserve and protect the soil and water resources by educating and assisting land users in Koochiching County in being good stewards of the land and its natural resources.”

And who are these land users, you might ask? Anyone who lives or recreates within Koochiching County boundaries! That being said, we work to diversify our efforts in the same way that our population is diverse. This means conservation practice workshops, hosting public watershed participation meetings, and youth education!

Spring is our busiest education season. This is the time when we host watershed health updates for five different watersheds within our county boundaries and ask the public for input. We like to hold in-person workshops, with recent topics surrounding how to remove European Buckthorn from your property and forest stewardship programs available to you. In youth education, we have staff on the Area VIII Envirothon planning committee and assist teachers in getting teams set up. We love participating in school events such as Environmental Education Days (a county-wide event for all 5th graders), classroom visits by teacher request, and one of our favorite events, drain stencil painting!

We don’t do this work alone. Our natural resources don’t know political boundaries, therefore our education doesn’t know boundaries either. We partner with neighboring counties, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, and of course our friends in Canada on a regular basis! This not only makes us stronger in our message, but allows us to pool our resources.

For more information, contact Jolen Simon, Program Coordinator at   jolen.simon@co.koochiching.mn.us

Photo: Indus School students learn how natural filtration works during an education booth with Koochiching SWCD

Conservation in the Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods Natural Area

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), Canada’s largest private land conservation organization, has been conserving important natural spaces since 1962. NCC’s conservation work is focused in Natural Areas and is guided by what are known as Natural Area Conservation Plans (NACP). The Rainy River to Lake of the Woods NACP was recently updated and will guide NCC’s work for the next 10 years. Since the late 1990s, NCC has been acquiring land on and around Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, from the Oak Grove property near the mouth of the Rainy River to the Hay Island property near the north end of Lake of the Woods.

The Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods Natural Area covers more than 4.9 million acres or nearly 2 million hectares. It is high in biodiversity values, especially for a boreal ecosystem which tends to have low species diversity compared to the rest of Ontario. The Natural Area extends from east of Rainy Lake, includes the entire watershed of Lake of the Woods and west to the Whitemouth River in Manitoba. Over 500 species of vascular plants have been recorded in the Natural Area, as well as many species of dragonflies, beetles, birds and butterflies. Of these species, many disjunct plants occur (e.g. prairie species well outside their western range) or plants with more southerly character that are at the northern limits of their range.

Extensive peatlands occur across the flat, southwestern portion of the Natural Area, as well as along gentle slopes on the edge of the moraine that dominates the western edge of the Natural Area and the Precambrian Shield Bedrock that dominates the northeastern edge. Bog and fen peatlands support a unique suite of species specialized to the conditions present in organic wetlands. This includes numerous carnivorous species and many of Manitoba’s rare orchid species. Peatlands store more carbon than any terrestrial ecosystem on earth and their conservation will play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

More information about NCC’s work on Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods and beyond can be found at: www.natureconservancy.ca.

LakeSmart – One Dock at a Time

LakeSmart is an award-winning environmental outreach program unique to the Lake of the Woods area of northwestern Ontario. A signature program of the Lake of the Woods District Stewardship Association, it is delivered by a team of post secondary students, each with an environmental education focus, who spend the summer sharing information with lake residents on ways to live and play green at the lake. The LakeSmart team is equipped with knowledge and resources on a broad range of topics including creating and maintaining shoreline buffer zones, reducing run-off, maintaining septic systems, using eco-friendly cleaning products, preventing the spread of invasive species, safe boating and more. 

Although the LakeSmart boat may not go into smaller lakes, the LakeSmart team will drive to many of them and attend association or community events with the same messages.  The team also makes sure they are at the well-attended farmer’s market in Kenora each week to hand out materials, talk to the public about good stewardship practices and show kids samples of invasive species up close!

For more information on this program, visit https://www.lowdsa.com/cpages/lakesmart

Series Intro: WRAPS (Minnesota) And Broadscale Monitoring (Ontario): Two Approaches, One Watershed

The Rainy-Lake of the Woods Basin is shared between Minnesota and Ontario, with a small portion in Manitoba, Canada.  When broken down into its ten major watersheds, it becomes even more obvious that water knows no boundaries and the watershed boundaries are what matter.  However, the way in which data are collected, water is monitored and restoration plans are put in place all differ greatly between the two countries. With numerous watersheds contained within the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Basin, all at varying stages of Minnesota’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) or Ontario’s Broadscale Monitoring cycle, a story has been written on each one – check them out here to find out more about what’s happening in your watershed, information on what’s known about local water quality and, if relevant, what restoration plans are being considered.

Series: WRAPS: The Minnesota Approach

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) takes a watershed approach to restoring and protecting Minnesota’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands and, in the case of the binational Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed, works in collaboration with agencies in Canada wherever possible. In the U.S., the funds used to accelerate efforts to monitor, assess, and restore impaired waters and to protect unimpaired waters is funded by Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Act.
The primary feature of the watershed approach is that it focuses on the watershed’s condition as the starting point for water quality assessment, planning, implementation and measurement of results. For each of the U.S. sub-basins in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed, the state conducts intensive water quality monitoring and assessments every ten years. During the ten-year cycle, water quality conditions are evaluated, priorities and goals for improvement are established and actions are designed to restore or protect water quality. When a watershed’s ten-year cycle is completed, a new cycle begins.
Along with the Watershed Approach, the MPCA developed a process to identify and address threats to water quality in each major watershed. This process is called “WRAPS” or the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy – WRAPS has four major steps or phases:

Step 1. Monitor water bodies and collect data
Step 2. Assess the Data
Step 3. Develop Strategies to Restore and Protect the Watershed’s Waterbodies
Step 4. Conduct Restoration and Protection Projects in the Watershed

To find out more on Minnesota’s process and where each of the sub-basins are in their monitoring cycle, check out https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/watershed-approach-restoring-and-protecting-water-quality.
With numerous sub-basins in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed, all at varying stages of the WRAPS process, a story will be written on each one – check them out here to find out more about what’s happening with WRAPS in your watershed and what restoration plans are being considered.

Series:The Ontario Approach: Broadscale Monitoring

In Ontario, fisheries management planning and Broadscale Monitoring are done on the basis of Fisheries Management Zones (FMZ). The Rainy-Lake of the Woods Basin is mostly contained within FMZ5 although the far eastern part of the basin is within FMZ6.  In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) is responsible for fish and wildlife populations and their habitat (including water quality) while Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP) is responsible for water quality from a human health and environmental standards perspective. Water quality data collected through the Broadscale Monitoring program are used to meet both of these objectives (collected by MNRF, analyzed by MOECP).

Ontario’s Broadscale Monitoring program began in 2008 with the first cycle running from 2008 to 2012 and the second cycle running from 2013 to 2017.  The number of lakes assessed within each watershed will vary each cycle. The number of lakes in Canada-only or shared watersheds assessed in the second cycle (2013-2017) was (approximately):

Rainy Headwaters – 31 (17 within Quetico Provincial Park; 14 outside)

Rainy Lake – 24

Big Turtle River – Rainy Lake – 25

Lake of the Woods – 13

Lower Rainy – 0

Photo: Fisheries Management Zones in Ontario (MNRF)

Series: No. 1 – Rainy River Headwaters

This is a watershed shared almost equally between Canada and the U.S., the majority of it being undeveloped and utilized for timber production, hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreational opportunities. The majority of land within the Ontario portion is within Quetico Provincial Park where no development is permitted (logging, mining, hydroelectric development). One community, Lac La Croix First Nation, is within this watershed, on the Canadian side and in Minnesota, there are several headwater communities.

In 2014, Minnesota’s intensive watershed monitoring 10-year cycle began here and was completed in 2015. The MPCA and its partners monitored dozens of lakes and streams to assess water quality and compare it to state standards. Overall, water quality conditions are good to excellent and can be attributed to the forest and wetlands that dominate the land cover; any impairments (TSS, E coli and mercury in fish) are typically limited to the lower reaches where stressors from land use practices may accumulate. Historical and recent forest cover changes, along with urban/industrial development and draining of wetlands are likely stressors affecting biological communities within the watershed. Next up for this watershed is the Stressor ID Report, due in March 2019, and the WRAPS Report, due in December 2020. For an overview of work being done in this watershed and to access the full monitoring and assessment report, go to:
https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/watersheds/rainy-river-headwaters.
In Ontario, as part of the Broadscale Monitoring Program, water quality data have been collected in the Rainy River headwaters from a random sample of lakes in 2010 and 2016. The sub-basin is entirely bedrock with the soil being primarily a thin layer of glacial till. Overall water quality conditions are good to excellent. Only one community at Lac La Croix First Nation and less than a dozen lakes with cottaging development are found here. There is no development within the Quetico Provincial Park portion of the watershed and no hydroelectric facilities or operating mines outside of the park where logging and related road construction is the major development activity. Studies within Quetico have found water chemistry to be primarily influenced by underlying bedrock geology (eg calcium, conductivity, pH). Because of the high proportion of granite bedrock, the watershed tends to have clearer waters that are slightly acidic with low phosphorus levels.

Photo Credit: P. Weber

Series: No. 2 – Big Turtle River-Rainy Lake

This watershed is entirely within Canada and, for water quality and fisheries management, it is within Ontario’s Fisheries Management Zone 5.  The vast majority of the watershed is undeveloped with logging and related road construction the major land use activities.  There are no hydroelectric facilities or currently operating mines and no managed water systems.  As part of Ontario’s Broadscale Monitoring Program, water quality data have been collected in this watershed from a random sample of lakes in 2010 and 2016. The watershed is entirely bedrock with the soil being primarily a thin layer of glacial till. Overall water quality conditions are good to excellent.  Water quality is similar to the Rainy Headwaters in terms of generally clear waters and low phosphorus levels.  The data from 2010 shows an average Secchi depth of 4.6 m, average total phosphorus of 6.6 and average pH of 7.0.

Series: No. 3 – Vermilion Watershed

The Vermilion Watershed is entirely within the U.S. – it is 662,427 acres in size, contains 565 lakes and 84,333 acres of wetlands and includes a portion of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The BWCAW is roadless, undeveloped country that is interconnected with lakes, rivers and portages.  Lake Vermilion itself is a unique lake, covering 39,271 acres and containing 365 islands. Its lakeshore features many cabins, homes, resorts and a casino. Recreation tourism is a prime economic driver; others include the forest industry, mining, and some farming. The Vermilion River flows north from Lake Vermilion through remote forested country to Crane Lake, which abuts Voyageurs National Park, and then drains into the park and Sand Point Lake (a border water with Canada). There are no large cities in this remote watershed; total watershed population is 14,423, or 14 people per square mile.

In 2015, the state’s intensive watershed monitoring kicked off the first two years of the 10-year WRAPS cycle in this watershed.  Overall, the Vermilion Watershed is in good shape with very few impairments.  The Monitoring and Assessment report came out in July 2018 and the Stressor ID report was finalized in April 2019. The WRAPS report is due out in December of 2020.  For more information, please go to: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/watersheds/vermilion-river and https://www.nslswcd.org/project_post/water-quality-testing/

Series: No. 4 – Little Fork River Watershed

This is a watershed that is entirely within the U.S. Vast tracts of forests and wetlands, along with limited development pressure have helped sustain the Little Fork River Watershed as a high quality aquatic resource. However, nonpoint source pollution contributes to excess levels of turbidity (i.e., sedimentation) throughout. Increased runoff from the land and impacts to the stream channel from historical logging in the 1890s through 1937 are thought to be contributing to the current erosion of riverbanks and excessive stream turbidity. The eutrophication and dissolved oxygen issues could be related to human development in the watersheds of the impaired lakes, and in some cases may be natural background conditions.  The protection of these surface waters is critical for sustaining the local economy, natural heritage and character of this unique watershed. MPCA has worked for many years in the Little Fork River Watershed and has cooperated in several studies with other agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, MN DNR, International Joint Commission, and others in an effort to understand this complex system. In the fall of 2011, the MPCA completed the monitoring and assessment of the Little Fork Watershed and results indicated several stream reaches with sediment problems. TMDL work for sediment reduction was done, followed by the final WRAPS report with restoration and protection strategies, both issued in November 2017. For more information, go to: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/watersheds/little-fork-river or https://koochichingswcd.org/little-fork-river/