Hawk Creek may be 100 miles from Mankato but the 65-mile waterway has connections and lessons for this region.

The creek, which starts north of Willmar, eventually empties into the Minnesota as it flows toward Mankato. The creek’s water is cleaner than it once was thanks to a coordinated effort called the Hawk Creek Watershed Project. The effort by the Renville, Chippewa and Kandiyohi counties and other groups is a model for other watersheds in the Minnesota River Basin.

Because of a united approach among the counties in the watershed, the HCWP has been successful in getting funding, capturing more than 25 percent of state and federal grants and loans in competition with all other watersheds, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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.

Focusing on improvements to the farm landscape is a must along most all of the polluted Minnesota River. The Hawk Creek Watershed lost an estimated 98% of its original wetlands as they were drained for agriculture. The wetland loss is similar all through the Minnesota River Basin.

The HCWP works with farmers to implement practices that are better for water quality, including cover crops and keeping more water on the landscape longer, while keeping ag land productive.

Improving areas along the Minnesota will be aided by the state’s new “One Watershed One Plan” approach, where water quality work is organized by the natural boundaries of watersheds rather than county boundaries. Before the One Watershed approach, which was approved by the Legislature last year, counties developed their own water plans.

Like in the Hawk Creek Watershed, some others have previously banded together to work on an entire watershed rather than counties going it alone. The Le Sueur and Blue Earth watersheds in the Mankato area have for years also taken a multi-county approach to improving what are two of the most problematic watersheds emptying into the Minnesota River.

While such coordinated efforts are useful, they all require adequate funding. That money needs to continue flowing from the federal and state governments, nonprofits and others if we are to make progress on water quality and water management.

But having counties, the state and other partners put the focus on entire watersheds is the most efficient and effective approach to improving our valuable water resources.

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