A new playlist of educational videos presented by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture shows how the flow of groundwater in southeast Minnesota is unlike anywhere else in the state.
The five-part series uses animation, aerial footage and narration to describe the region’s movement of groundwater. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the project is aimed at helping residents and producers better understand how water in the region moves through the soil and multiple layers of rock, and how "water-soluble contaminants like nitrate-nitrogen can enter drinking water wells and streams."
"These videos help show the direct connections between groundwater and surface water, explain why certain wells are more vulnerable to nitrate contamination and why nitrate levels are slowly increasing in certain streams," said the MDA release announcing the series.
The collaborative project between the Root River Field to Stream Partnership, Minnesota Geological Survey, county and state agencies, University of Minnesota Extension and local well drillers and farmers highlights the different landscapes in the Root River Watershed. But the information can be applied throughout southeast Minnesota and Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest, according to the department.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency describes the unusual karst geography of southeastern Minnesota as having features like caves, hollows and rolling hills that are formed mostly of limestone. This kind of topography makes water in the area more difficult to protect from contaminants, according to the MPCA.
Groundwater in the karst region can move as fast as "tens of feet per second", said Dan Wermager, water planner and technician for the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District.
"Sinkholes, old wells, those are direct conduits — stuff that people may not realize," said Wermager, who works out of Caledonia in Houston County.
Kevin Kuehner is an expert in pesticide and fertilizer management with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and based in southeast Minnesota. He said he formed the initial concept for the video series around three years ago, but the project didn't get legs until funding was secured through the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which Kuehner then leveraged to get dollars from the state's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Fund.
The idea for the project stemmed from the work done by the Root River Field to Stream Partnership, which is aimed at answering questions about the relationship between agriculture and water quality, said Kuehner.
For the last decade numerous studies and monitoring of the Root River Watershed have been done by the partnership. Kuehner said that although the science of groundwater is still evolving, much is already known, especially in southeast Minnesota where a lot of attention has been put on the topic.
The Root River Field to Stream Partnership has lately implemented additional practices to address different kinds of runoff, but even more recently shifted its gears more toward nitrate in groundwater.
"You really can't talk about nitrate until you talk about groundwater first," Kuehner said. "Just in terms of knowing what it is, how it moves."
The goal of the video playlist was to make the information straightforward and basic enough for landowners and producers to understand clearly.
"There's a lot of great information out there on groundwater, but a lot of times it's buried in very technical reports or scientific journals," Kuehner said.
Production on the series began in 2018 with Kuehner writing the script and a videographer based out of Farmington, Minn., developing graphics and animations. To construct the material, Kuehner looked to a 10-member advisory group that he formed of groundwater specialists, soil scientists, local farmers and well-drillers.
Filming took place in spring of last year and finals edits were completed by August 2020, Kuehner said.
"To my knowledge, there is no groundwater educational product that has the kind of footage we have," he said. "These are actual high-resolution shots that we collected of bedrock outcrops in southeast Minnesota."
Those images are mixed in with drone shots of the region and animation in the video series. The combination of all elements was essential, Kuehner said.
"It was important that we created something that used graphics to explain some of the concepts, but also brought it back to this area, and showed true-to-life images of the landscape," Kuehner said. "So when you're driving around, and you see a bedrock cross section, now you can relate that back to the video and understand a little bit more about how groundwater moves in this area."