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Treating county drainage water

By Staff | Dec 6, 2015

This grass swale area north of Blue Earth along Highway 169 will be the site of the largest bio-reactor in the country.

Motorists on Highway 169 may have noticed some equipment in a field north of Blue Earth and wondered what was going on.

Turns out, it is the start of a large drainage project that is the first of its kind in the whole country.

And, it involves a reactor. Not a nuclear reactor, but a bio-reactor, says Merissa Lore, Faribault County drainage manager.

“This is the first project of its kind to be built on a public drainage system,” Lore says. “And it is by far the largest one ever built anywhere.”

She explains that the project involves digging pits and filling them with wood chips. Drainage water goes through the chips and it takes the nitrates out of the public drainage system before the water enters the Blue Earth River.

Left to right, are Brandee Douglas and Joe Mutschler of the Faribault County Soil and Water Conservation District and Merissa Lore of the Faribault County Drainage Department.

“There will be three bio-reactors installed (at the project site),” Lore says. “Each one will be 135-feet long by 25-feet wide by 5-feet deep. They will be filled with wood chips, then covered over with a dirt mound with top soil and grass.”

The bio-reactor will remove nitrates from drainage water from a 630-acre area that has a county tile line system. And, since it is being built in a grass swale area just west of Highway 169, no farmland is being taken out of production.

“We have received quite a bit of grant money for the project,” Lore says. “Especially some federal funds from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.”

In all the county has received $190,000 for the project. It was designed by I&S Group of Mankato and the construction work is being done by Beemer Companies of Fairmont.

The project has generated quite a bit of interest, both on a local and state level even on a national level in some cases. Agencies including the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and other ag-related agencies are all keeping an eye on the innovative drainage practices project.

Joe Mutschler, in-house engineer at the Faribault County Soil and Water Conservation District office in Blue Earth, is video-taped by a camera crew from Mankato as he is interviewed about the new bio-reactor system being installed on property owned by Neal Mensing, a few miles north of Blue Earth. The project, which will filter nitrates out of drainage water, is the largest of its kind anywhere in the country.

Locally, the Faribault County Soil and Water Conservation District office is also involved in the project. The SWCD did the applications for funding, dealing with multiple granting agencies. And, they will also be administering the grants.

They are also involved in another way making videos of the progress of the project.

“When the project is all finished, you won’t be able to see it it will be buried underground,” says Brandee Douglas of the SWCD. “So we are making videos of the work and explaining the details of the project itself.”

In fact, there will be four videos and they will be made available on YouTube. They will show the work as it progresses and will also have interviews with the landowner, elected officials (county commissioners), Lore and county conservation planner Joe Mutschler, an in-house engineer at SWCD.

“We will show the bio-reactor being installed,” Douglas says. “They will help landowners and officials understand this whole conservation drainage project.”

Then next spring there will be a Drainage Field Day in Blue Earth and at the site of the bio-reactor to give officials and landowners from around the state the opportunity to see this first of a kind project in operation.

“We want to show multi-purpose drainage practices to landowners, contractors, and others,” says Douglas. “As systems are repaired and improved, they can improve water quality, too.”

The County Drainage Department and SWCD share office space at the Ag Center. They say this arrangement works out quite well, especially when they have joint partnership projects like this.

Lore says she keeps plenty busy with drainage issues in Faribault County.

“There are 114 drainage systems in Faribault County,” Lore says. “There are 209 miles of open ditches and 714 miles of public tile lines. That is a lot to maintain and keep open.”

The concern by the SWCD is much of this drainage water ends up in the Blue Earth River. The bio-reactor project is one way to filter nitrates out of the water that is drained from watershed areas before it hits the river.

“We are concerned with water quality and conservation practices,” Douglas says. “Not just drainage to get rid of water, but also in a way that protects the environment. That is what this project is all about drainage with a conservation emphasis.”

Any landowners who would like more information about bio-reactors in general and this project specifically are asked to contact the Faribault County Drainage Department or the Soil and Water Conservation District at their office in the Ag Center in Blue Earth.