Scott County contacted Jay and Laureen Picha on Jan. 29 and invited them to a little sit-down. It was about the creek that runs across their 167 acres between Shakopee and Jordan.
It seems that at times, too much water is racing down it too fast, carrying sediment and perhaps pollution into Sand Creek, and then into the Minnesota River, which is not so pure to begin with.
"They sat me down and talked to me about their thoughts on the future," said Jay, a cabinetmaker with a business on Hwy. 169. "They were very pleasant. They think they will have money next year to 'rebank' my creek," shoring up the sides and creating new bends back and forth, "so it doesn't keep eroding the banks, which fall into the bottom and eventually into the river."
Welcome to a new approach to cleaning up the water in Scott County.
The latest annual report from water quality officials, reviewed this week with the county board, announces a new and more assertive approach to dealing with problem areas.
In the past, said Paul Nelson, the county's natural resources program manager, government officials have tended to "wait for people to become interested and apply," when gullies developed, for instance, on their land, gushing toxin-laden topsoil into streams, rivers and lakes.
"What this does is say, 'We've done a lot of studies now, and as a result we have a better idea of where our conservation dollar will provide the most benefit. Let's go out and target those locations: contact those people and see if they're interested rather than wait for them. We're not pointing fingers. But we know where public monies are better spent.'"
Nelson and his colleagues were also offering financial help, and Picha says that's only fair. The problems with his stream are not his fault.
"The erosion winds up costing a lot to be dredged out of the river," he said. "I'm excited when someone is interested in sharing the cost, because even though the Department of Natural Resources calls this little tributary 'natural water,' I don't 100 percent agree. A hundred years ago, there was no tiling into the creek" -- that is, farmers weren't pushing quantities of water into it artificially, to keep their crops from flooding -- "and no problem with the creek. But now there is, and it should be a shared cost."
It's often the case that a section of creek bank on someone's land is causing problems because of nearby development or other factors, said Pete Beckius, district manager for the Scott Soil and Water Conservation District. But at times it's more internal to that person's own land. Among the common solutions:
• Creating "filter strips" between crops and the stream, planting grass to stop erosion.
• Creating small dikes in a field to capture runoff and let sediment filter out before the water leaves.
• Stabilizing stream banks so they aren't eroding. "Sixty to 70 percent of pollutant loads in streams come from stream bank erosion itself," Beckius said.
The favored solution these days, he added: bioengineering, meaning strategic plantings, versus the old-school approach of throwing a lot of concrete into the battle. "It used to be all 'hard armor, hard armor,' but today we try to use more natural methods."
The government's gingerly handled interventions aren't always well received, officials agree. And when there's resistance -- when a landowner feels there's little in it for him or her -- they may need to step back.
But Nelson considers the overall response so far to be "tremendous."
"We started this winter with potential projects all along Sand Creek and Porter Creek and sent out 120 invitations for people to come in and spend time with conservationists, and 45 people RSVP'd. And all but one wanted some follow-up."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023