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SWCD News: Raise your cup to a year of successes with SWCD

After: the same West Chub Lake Road culvert outlet after it was replaced in the spring. Contributed photos 1 / 4
SWCD conservation technician Laura Christensen gets deep into wetland work. Working with wetland and agricultural issues is the job of Carlton SWCD's newest employee. Contributed Photo 2 / 4
Before: A West Chub Lake Road culvert outlet (at Twin Lakes Township Road) shows soil eroding into Chub Lake. 3 / 4
Aspen were cut down and the soil scuffed up around a seed tree at this oak regeneration site. Contributed Photo 4 / 4

On New Year's Eve, it is considered traditional to sing "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight to bid farewell to the old year. This Scottish song is asking a question: Should we forget old times and old acquaintances?

For each of us, there are some aspects of the year 2016 that we can't wait to forget. However, we'll "take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne" — meaning, we'll raise our "cup" and think of the best of 2016 "for the sake of old times" — before we move on to the new year of 2017.

"Auld Lang Syne" is an appropriate song this year for the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

"2016 was a year of great success … and tremendous growth for the Carlton SWCD," said SWCD manager Brad Matlack, explaining that Carlton County residents now have access to expanded services, which has led to great success in a number of projects and activities regarding the forests, watersheds, farms and wetlands in the county.

In the area of forestry, early spring found conservation technician Kelly Smith, Carlton SWCD's longest-serving employee, in the fields working with the county's fourth-grade students to plant and learn about trees for the annual Arbor Day tree planting, a project sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension Service. (See June 2, 2016 Pine Journal.) Spring also found Smith coordinating the repair of a failing culvert under West Chub Lake Road which was washing large amounts of sediment into Chub Lake. In addition, according to Smith, just around the corner of this same lake, an eroding private driveway was stabilized and this also effectively stopped property damage and kept more sediment out of the lake.

In late June, Carlton SWCD hired a new employee and Smith has now been reassigned away from wetlands and erosion control work to forestry assistance as his major work. "With more attention on forestry, the SWCD will be better able to help landowners improve their forests for timber production, wildlife habitat, and water quality benefits,” said Smith.

Thus 2016 found Smith greatly increasing his work and outreach with landowners on plans and projects dealing with many different forestry issues, including tree establishment, tree planting checkups, forest stand improvement, site prep, buckthorn contro, riparian buffer maintenance and more. Basically, if you have a forestry question or problem, Smith will have an answer or solution.

One big project this fall, according to Smith, was helping two landowners with forest stand improvement projects that released birch, maple and oak trees by removing competing aspen trees. This project strengthened and improved another 34 acres of Carlton County forests.

One of the SWCD's biggest 2016 watershed success stories was the coordination and completion of a second stream restoration project in the Deer Creek Watershed, according to water resource technician Melanie Bomier. This project continues SWCD work to address the issues of the failing red clay dams built in the Nemadji Watershed in the 1970s. Bomier said the project was the  result of many years of work by many different people to coordinate every aspect including the planning, permit applications, environmental reviews, communications between all involved parties, design, and implementation. All of this work resulted in the creation of a very impressive natural stream channel as well as the stabilization of the deep erosion from the old dam. (Read October 6, 2016 Pine Journal.)

In addition, Bomier coordinated projects and activities in three watersheds in Carlton County during the year.

In the Nemadji Watershed, Bomier led the formation of a very successful Nemadji Water Fest held in March, funded by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). (See March 17, 2016 Pine Journal). “It was great to see so many people, young and old, learning more about water resources,” she said. Bomier has also started work on phase four of the Nemadji Watershed grant, which includes another watershed information newsletter, more water monitoring, additional technical team and community meetings, and planning for future watershed work.

In the Kettle River Watershed, Bomier collected water samples and data on two streams and 10 lakes this summer in phase one of the Kettle River Watershed Monitoring project, also funded by MPCA (see July 7, 2016 Pine Journal).

In the Upper Mississippi Watershed, she assisted the Big Sandy Area Lakes Watershed Management Project (BSALWMP) by coordinating volunteers to collect samples from Cromwell area lakes.

In addition to field work, Bomier is creating a "Watershed Dashboard," funded by Clean Water Legacy funds managed through the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). When completed, this project will be an online resource to help Carlton County residents learn more about our county's natural resources.

Regarding farmland, 2016 was the first year that the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) was offered to farmers in 10 counties in northeast Minnesota, according to Ryan Clark, the area certification specialist for MAWQCP. By the end of 2016, out of 45 total applicants, 26 had reached certification status, including seven are farms in Carlton County. (See April 21, 2016 Pine Journal.)

There are several benefits to seek and reach certification status, according to Clark. First, under this voluntary program, farmers are certified as compliant with regulations for the next 10 years. Secondly, many of these farmers have taken advantage of the financial assistance programs tied to MAWQCP to accomplish new conservation practices, such as prescribed grazing and planting of cover crops. Lastly, farmers can use their water quality certification as a marketing tool to show customers their environmental stewardship.

Clark said he enjoyed working with a wide variety of farmers who are all dedicated to preserving our shared natural resources. Although he has worked with many farmers in a variety of locations during his years in the conservation field, Clark said the northeast part of the state has unique opportunities and challenges in agriculture, and it is exciting to see the level of enthusiasm for conservation by many local farmers.

Working with wetland and agricultural issues is the job of Carlton SWCD's newest employee, conservation technician Laura Christensen. Shortly after she started in late June, Christensen hit the ground running by helping landowners who needed property assessments for environmental and property damage caused by the heavy rains and flooding in July.

Christensen has been busy with two main projects. The first is working on the Buffer Compliance mandated by the state of Minnesota. Using the web-based Buffer Compliance and Tracking Tool, Christensen completed analysis determining that 6,079 land parcels in Carlton County are already compliant with the 2015 Buffer Law. The remaining 277 county parcels will need field verification to determine if a buffer will need to be established or if they already meet existing compliance standards.

The second big project is Christensen's Wetland Conservation Act (WCA) work with the Technical Evaluation Panel for Carlton County. As a technical representative, she has been involved with multiple site visits, meetings, and work with wetland violations.

“It has been a challenging, but fulfilling, experience working to protect the wetlands of the county and to spread knowledge of wetland importance and preservation,” she said.

Field work is the main emphasis of the SWCD, but much work goes on behind the scenes, too. Grants need to be written, reports completed and submitted, budgets created and monitored, and funding sources billed. Without good administration, there is no leadership to make sure everything gets done on schedule and within budget. And with the increase in staff and funding pools, office administration needed more complex and precise ways to track project status, hours and monies.

The SWCD made great progress designing and updating tracking systems in 2016. Matlack and administrative assistant Julie Radovich worked with a local computer contractor to develop a Microsoft database for time keeping.

“We have always had good time sheets, but this system allows us to look at the 60 (or more) different specific slots our staff time fits into," Matlack said. “This new database also generates professional looking reports for invoices and is paying dividends now at the end of the year when we are looking for total hours spent on certain parts of our SWCD operation." In addition, they developed a  separate spreadsheet system to track projects by funding pools and project status.  

Currently, Matlack and Radovich are working hard to create the SWCD's annual accomplishment report for 2016, which will be available in early 2017.

“The report will be filled with success stories, analysis of data gathered, and progress towards the goals of the SWCD," Matlack added.

After completion, this report will be available on the website and at the office for those who are interested in checking out Carlton SWCD's accomplishments.

Last, but not least, during 2016, we bid a sad farewell to several strong SWCD supporters. As "Auld Lang Syne" asks, should we forget these old acquaintances? The answer is a resounding NO, as these three persons will always have an enduring place, with much gratitude, in our SWCD history.

Don Benrud of Moose Lake passed away in late July. He worked closely with Carlton SWCD during his 35 years as the resource conservationist with the U.S.D.A Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Benrud was instrumental in performing field work in Carlton SWCD's early years from the 1960s to 1980s. Even after he retired, Benrud continued to visit with SWCD staff and advise and help when and where he could. We were very honored to have Benrud as a special guest at our 2015 SWCD Awards Banquet.

Gordon Aanerud of Carlton passed away in early September. He was also a longtime SWCD supporter during his 19 years as a Carlton County Commissioner. A farmer and teacher, Aanerud was a valuable voice in the conservation community and is greatly missed by many groups around the state, including the Carlton SWCD.

The last farewell we bid is not due to death, but to job change. Will Bomier, another strong supporter of the SWCD program, left his position as the NRCS District Conservationist for a new position in the Carlton County Transportation Department. Although Bomier will still be involved in conservation work, he will not be our much valued and important resource between NRCS and SWCD. However, someone aptly said "NRCS's loss is Carlton County's gain!"

Summing up 2016's "Auld Lang Syne" year of a great amount of growth, the Carlton County Board of SWCD Supervisors join Matlack in raising our cup of kindness in toasting how we are all proud of the staff we have to carry out the mission of our SWCD. They are experienced, energetic and devoted to their trade. All of us at Carlton SWCD look forward to the coming years of programs and projects our team can accomplish for the landowners and residents of Carlton County.