Red River Riparian Project works to improve water quality
Funding challenges ahead for program
COUNTY – Riparian – (ri·par·i·an) is a word a lot of people may not be familiar with, but riparian areas are important to our daily lives. Simply put, a riparian area is the portion of land located on the bank of a natural course of water, for those in Walsh County, rivers and streams. Properly maintaining riparian areas directly affects the quality of water we use and drink everyday. The quality of water can also negatively impact aquatic ecosystems.
The Red River Regional Council (RRRC) has maintained the Red River Riparian Project (RRRP) for the past 17 years.
According to RRRP program manager Sarah Braaten Johnston, the riparian project works to improve water quality on areas designated as threatened. The RRRP covers various watersheds in Walsh, Pembina, Nelson and Grand Forks counties. At the present time, there are over 363 miles of river with water quality impairments in that four county area alone. The Forest and Park River are the two watersheds within Walsh County.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the North Dakota Department of Health are the federal and state sponsors of the program. The RRRC, local water boards, county commissions and soil conservation districts are all local sponsors for the project.
Johnston said the number one goal of the RRRP is to improve water quality.
A big factor in “non-point source” pollution is from sediment in the water caused by soil erosion.
When riparian areas like river banks aren’t properly vegetated, it speeds up soil erosion. It also doesn’t allow for the vegetation to act as a filter to trap pollutants including fecal coliform (e. coli) and toxic elements such as selenium and lead.
What’s more, when turbidity (cloudiness) of water increases, aquatic life is impacted. Increased siltation of water can bury fish and aquatic invertebrate eggs, causing those species to die off. Those events, in turn, can have an impact on recreational opportunities like fishing and canoeing.
Johnston said flood events this spring also caused several problems in Walsh County alone.
One area is the Kensington Addition in Park River where the spring flood actually changed the direction of the channel of the Park River. The “migration” of the channel ate up chunks of resident’s back yards and threatened some homes.
Johnston said they are currently in the planning stages of finding a solution for the problem.
“It’s the riparian areas that we’re looking to help people improve,” she said. “It’s better to ask questions and address the smaller problems before they grow into bigger problems.”
Johnston said the soil conservation districts in the region are supportive and have offered to contribute in-kind hours on conservation planning and implementation.
“I work closely with the Soil Conservation District to help people who may come to their office for help with a problem along a river,” she said.
Other projects the RRRP has been working on include a stream bank stabilization project along the Tongue River in the City of Cavalier, as well as the O’Hara Bridge stream bank stabilization project west of Pembina.
Johnston said another possible project will include the removal of wood debris along the Park River in Grafton and the possible development of a public river access southwest of the water plant in Grafton.
Johnston said the current phase of the project, Phase IV, will be completed in the fall of 2014. Phase V of the project is currently under development.
Of course soil stabilization and other riparian projects cost money. Johnston said the RRRP is currently working to develop a local match for Phase IV which is to be completed by September, 2014. Approximately $78,000 in EPA funds are available at a 60-40 match. They’re also looking for a local match for the implementation of Phase V of the project which is scheduled for October 2014 through September 2016.
Johnston said one big source of funding is the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). She will be traveling to Bismarck in December to present an application to the OHF.
The OHF is generated by oil tax revenue and is predicted to raise about $17.62 million in funds during the 2013-2015 biennium.
The RRRP “cost shares” projects with EPA 319 funds which pay up to 60 percent of the total project cost.
“That leaves the landowner with 40 percent or more of the cost,” Johnston said. “The OHF would be the opportunity that would be pivotal in providing extra funds beyond the cost share we offer. This extra money on top of the cost share is what is needed in some cases to move projects along into the implementation phase.”
“We are requesting a total of nearly $1.3 million for the two-year period to implement projects that are in the planning process after last year’s flooding,” she said. “The number of requests for riparian-related assistance has exceeded our ability to provide assistance to all of the landowners who have requested it.”
Johnston has worked at the RRRC for the past two years. She grew up on the family farm near the Wild Rice River in Richland County, south of Wyndmere and is familiar with riparian and landowner issues.
Her studies have included subjects like watershed and range management, soils, ecology, ground water, wetlands, forestry and tile drainage.
“That has allowed me to have a multi-disciplinary look at what’s going on in a watershed,” Johnston said. “It’s important to have the full 360-perspective as to how these river systems affect people and how people affect rivers. An open mind is a very important thing to have when working on river issues. As a farmer’s daughter, I’m always thinking about the farmer’s perspective – these projects have to make sense for the bottom line.”