Anoka Conservation District Blazing Trails

Clear lakes. Resilient rivers. Safe drinking water. Abundant wildlife. Great fisheries. Protected greenspace. Outdoor recreation opportunities. Minnesotans have come to expect these. Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), such as Anoka Conservation District (ACD) are one of the primary entities relied upon to deliver these benefits across the state. Each SWCD is customized to meet the needs of their residents, whether in the agricultural south and west, the forests of the north and east, the lakes of the central region, the bluffs of the southeast, or the urban-scape of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area, SWCDs are adapted to help landowners implement conservation. Not only does the approach change from one corner of Minnesota to the other according to the landscape, but it must also be adapted over time to changes in the landscape, and to evolving data, science and technology.

How well has ACD evolved to adapt to the tides of change? What has ACD done to advance the science, practice and policy of conservation? The following list represents activities where ACD took a lead role, was the first, and in some cases the only, special purpose local government entity to undertake them.


Subwatershed Retrofit Analysis – In the 2000s, ACD modified and refined the Center for Watershed Protection's protocol for subwatershed analysis and applied it to meet local needs. The analysis involves detailed field reconnaissance to identify project opportunities; modeling of potential projects to quantify benefits to the receiving water body; cost estimates for design, construction, and maintenance of the projects; and ranking of the projects by cost-effectiveness. This level of analysis has become the standard for identifying and ranking projects to meet water quality improvement goals. With multiple rounds of grant funding to complete analyses, there are currently 17 completed within Anoka County and dozens more across the metro area and in greater Minnesota. ACD staff have provided training on the process to many natural resource professionals across Minnesota.

Shoreland Photo Inventory for Lakes and Rivers – Many have used Google Streetview, where you can virtually transport yourself to any street and take a full circle look at your surroundings. For shoreland management, this ability would be exceptionally useful. Since the photos didn't exist, ACD purchased a 360 degree camera and set about gathering the photos and uploading them to Streetview. With over 500K views, the photos along the entirety of the Rum and Mississippi Rivers in Anoka County as well as many lakes have proven extremely useful, not only to ACD staff assisting shoreland owners, but to the general public as well. ACD was the first in Minnesota to do this.

Riverbank and Shoreland Erosion Analysis – Combining the data in shoreland photo inventories with soil type and topographic contours has allowed ACD staff to develop erosion rate estimates and rudimentary bank stabilization approach designations. This allows for rough project cost estimates and subsequent project ranking for cost-effectiveness. Having identified $14M of riverbank stabilization need on the Rum River alone, ACD has leveraged this knowledge into multiple project implementation grants. Similar analysis has been completed for several lakes and is underway for the Mississippi River. ACD was the first in Minnesota to complete this scope of bank erosion analysis.

Targeted Landowner Outreach – Detailed identification of water quality improvement project opportunities, whether shoreland and lakeshore erosion repair or stormwater treatment practices, along with their likely costs has enabled ACD to implement an extremely targeted approach to project implementation. Gone are the days of broadly advertising the availability of conservation cost share funds. ACD staff now go door-knocking to connect individually with the owners of properties where the most cost-effective project opportunities have been identified. By doing this, we ensure that we gain the most benefit with the limited funds that we have available to us. Property level opportunity identification and direct landowner outreach was spearheaded by ACD.

Campus Groundwater Conservation Planning – ACD led the charge to secure funding and develop a protocol to identify groundwater conservation opportunities on large public campuses in urban areas. This was completed in recognition of diminished groundwater supplies and quality in some areas and the need to develop and implement conservation measures. Campus level analysis completed across the metro area identified countless opportunities to reduce waste, many of which will pay for themselves in a matter of months with savings on water bills.

Conservation Easements – In a rapidly urbanizing county, with valued open space converting to residential and commercial uses, it was important to provide landowners interested in protecting their property with an alternative to development. In the 90's, ACD began directly accepting conservation easements, which perpetually protect lands from development while keeping the lands in private ownership. ACD now holds easements or fee title interest on six properties protecting 400 acres of high priority habitats, and is one of very few, if not the only SWCD to do so in Minnesota.

Rare Species Salvage – Many may be surprised to learn that the Twin Cities Metro Area is home to many rare plant and animal species. While geology and natural ecosystems play an important role, the primary reason for this is that urbanization of land constricts ever tighter around species fighting to maintain a foothold. Laws designed to protect rare species by keeping their locations unknown and making it illegal to harvest or possess them have had some unintended consequences. A prime example was that when a known population of rare plants was in the way of development and DNR issued a permit to destroy them, it was illegal to try to salvage them. After applying for grants to develop a salvage program in Minnesota and working with DNR staff to create a process whereby a salvage permit could be secured, ACD has undertaken the first two salvage projects in Minnesota and has translocated thousands of rare plants. The success of the translocations will be monitoring to further advance our understanding of these rare species.

Wetland Restoration Management – The Wetland Conservation Act of 1991 requires that draining or filling of certain wetlands be mitigated with and equal or greater amount of wetland restoration. To ensure the timely progress of projects, a market developed to create and sell wetland restoration credits to those who could not avoid wetland impacts. This process, knows as wetland banking has grown in sophistication over the years, and the expectations for the quality of restored wetland has dramatically increased. To assure long-term performance measures are met, state and federal regulatory entities started to require multi-decade maintenance plans with funding mechanisms. ACD was the first in Minnesota to step up to the plate to fulfill this need by entering into an agreement with the owner of a large wetland restoration bank to complete maintenance for 40+ years. The maintenance efforts will be funded by a substantial endowment.

Patented Rain Guardian Pretreatment Chambers – Rain gardens emerged on the conservation scene in the 2000s as a means to add effective stormwater treatment to highly development landscapes. Owners of rain gardens quickly came to realize that their gardens were capturing a ton of sediment and debris from the streets. Removing this material from within and around the mulch and plants was necessary to keep the water soaking into the ground between storms, but it was a lot of work. ACD staff recognized the need for an effective pretreatment device for rain gardens that homeowners could maintain. Standard sumps that required a vac-truck to empty just wouldn't do. So, ACD staff designed and patented Rain Guardian Pretreatment Chambers. Nationwide sales now support local conservation initiatives. ACD is the only SWCD nationwide to hold a patent.


Photo by Mark Bugnaski Photography

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Watershed Based Implementation Funding

A state strategy to move away from competitive grant funding and toward predictable and reliable allocations for water resource management is underway. The concern with competitive funding is the amount of staff time that is dedicated toward the preparation of project applications. With funding requests consistently exceeding available funding by a factor of four, the likelihood of success is slim. This creates a system of feast or famine project implementation, which leads to the highly inefficient cycle of building and dismantling programs and services.

The new approach, called Watershed Based Implementation Funding will eventually allocate up to 80% of available Clean Water Fund dollars to established partnerships that have ready-to-implement strategic plans. After the bugs are worked out, the hope is that water resource managers will be able to predict funding availability more accurately and be able to implement water quality improvement projects efficiently and systematically.

Anoka Conservation District is a member of four of these watershed-based partnerships: Rum River, Lower St. Croix, Mississippi West, and Mississippi East. Each group is in the process of meeting virtually to discuss how to distribute funds allocated to their watershed area. Allocations for watershed areas are based on land area and other factors, and vary greatly.

Funds can be distributed to partners to pursue the projects identified in their individual plans, or to a ranked list of projects compiled and approved by the partnership. Each group is likely to take a different approach. In the Rum River, a project list was developed by consensus of the partners, and was heavily influenced by project readiness. In the Lower St. Croix, there is a single master plan, called a 1-Watershed, 1-Plan that is being used to guide project selection. In Mississippi West, a ranking system has been developed and each partner may bring forward up to two projects for consideration. In Mississippi East, the preference seems to be to allocate funds to the three subgroups (soils and water conservation districts, watershed management organizations, and counties with groundwater plans) and have them work amongst themselves to develop a list of implementation activities.

How ever we get there, it will be exciting to see what projects and programs come to fruition through this new approach. 

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A Decade of Competitive Clean Water Funding: How Do Local Partners Stack Up?

The voter approved Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment increased sales tax in 2010 to create a constitutionally dedicated funding source so we could manage our natural resources for the enjoyment of current and future generations. The funds are distributed through the Clean Water Fund (CWF) to improve surface water and groundwater, the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF) to improve habitat, and the Parks & Trails Fund to improve local and regional parks. The amendment expires in 2034, 25 years after it was passed. Of the three funds, the Clean Water Fund is the one most relied on by local government units to implement locally important projects and programs. During the first 10 years of competitive Clean Water Fund awards, 582 local government units submitted 2,064 successful project proposals and secured over $279M in funds to make our water resources better.

In the first decade of Clean Water Fund awards, Anoka Conservation Districts comes in at a respectable 7th of 582. With 18 successful grant applications totaling just under $4M, we've been able to do a lot of work for those who live, work and play in Anoka County. Details of all CWF projects can be found at Legacy.MN.gov.

Of course, that is only a small part of the whole story. ACD works in tandem with many partners wholly and partially within Anoka County who have also been very successful securing CWF funds and putting water management into action. You may have noticed that three of the top ten recipients statewide serve all or portions of Anoka County, including the City of St. Francis and the Rice Creek Watershed District. In total, twelve of the twenty-one cities in Anoka County, along with three of the seven water management entities have all secured CWF funds to manage surface water and groundwater resources. Many of those not listed were critical partners in project funding, installation, and maintenance. We are all working together to ensure our water resources have a bright future.

Outdoor Heritage Funds have also been a critical source of funds to support habitat management in Anoka County, but that's another story.

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Where the Anoka Conservation District Money Goes

ACD finances historically experience dramatic variability from year to year due to activities being driven by competitive grants, several of which have been in excess of $400,000. Many state grants are from sales tax revenue dedicated to natural resource activities. ACD is committed to accessing these funds so Anoka County taxpayers will benefit from them in proportion to sales tax paid in the county. Also of note is how consistent ACD's operational and personnel costs have been. ACD staff and supervisors strive to keep overhead costs down, while expanding service

Making Sense of the Dollars: Although governed by an elected board, conservation districts do not yet have taxing authority and must secure funds from many sources to maintain programs and services. State grants are the primary funding source for project installation, while the county provides seven times what the state does to support general district operations. County funds are critical because many grants do not cover overhead expenses. Unfortunately, many grants also require matching funds, so county funds must serve as match and cover all costs ineligible under complex grant rules.

Making Dollars of the Cents: To provide comprehensive natural resource management, ACD collaborates with cities, watershed management entities, state agencies, county departments, non-profits, and landowners on projects of mutual interest. The 2019 revenue chart begins to convey this but does not show the 68 projects and programs supported by 26 distinct funding sources, many of which supported multiple projects and programs. For example, County Project Funds alone is comprised of 12 projects, and State Grants were used in part to fund 35 different initiatives 


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Golden Lake Project Water Quality Improvement Project

2019 marked the completion of a large scale water quality improvement project designed to removed excess nutrients form stormwater prior to it discharging into Golden Lake. Golden Lake is located in the City of Circle Pines and has been designated as being impaired by nutrient contamination. Excess nutrients lead to high algae growth and low water clarity. This project was completed by a partnership of the City of Circle Pines ($70,000) and the Anoka Conservation District ($12,000) with financial contributions from the Rice Creek Watershed ($50,000) District and the Clean Water Fund of the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment ($467,968)

Although it looks like little more than a sand volley ball court, the project relies on precise chemistry and physics. The project pumps water from a stormwater pond just upstream of Golden Lake and directs that water through a sand filter that is enhanced with iron filings. The iron filings chemically bind to the nutrient pollution. The clean, filtered water discharges to an old ditch alignment that goes to Golden Lake. When functioning per the design, the project should remove 40-60 pounds per year of phosphorus for 25 years, which gets us 50% of the way to our goal for Golden Lake.

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