Southeast Minnesota's Root River drains slightly more than a million acres that share a geological heritage with parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The "Driftless Area," as the larger region is known, was untouched by glaciers during the most recent glacial period. The region got its name from the fact that its ancient limestone bedrock was not covered by glacial deposits of rock and soil called "drift."
As a result, the Driftless Area is a regionally unique landscape of about 24,000 square miles where rare species of plants and animals are sheltered by diverse habitats, including limestone caves, sinkholes, coldwater streams, springs, dry bluffs and ridges, prairie, forest and deep ravines with steep, cool slopes.
The Root River basin itself supports migratory birds and several important fish and mussel species. Recent research has indicated that original genetic strains of brook trout, the only trout native to Driftless Area streams, still exist in tributaries of the Root. Bluff tops and steep ravines within the basin host high-quality forest and prairie communities that provide habitat for several rare plant and animal species.
Aquatic life in the Root and its tributaries is being threatened by excessive erosion, especially from stream banks and hillsides, which has degraded water quality. Moreover, large amounts of sediment from the basin are entering the Upper Mississippi River, contributing to degradation of the larger stream's backwater habitats and to hypoxia problems in the distant Gulf of Mexico.
Strategies and Progress
Working with partners to address these concerns, The Nature Conservancy has launched an initiative to assist farmers, conservation partners and other landowners within targeted areas of the Root River basin. Specifically, the Conservancy is working with landowners to identify and implement conservation-oriented agricultural practices such as stream buffers and cover crops and is providing information on incentive-based conservation opportunities available through federal and state programs. In addition, a conservation action plan has been developed to guide the Conservancy's efforts in the Root River basin over the next 10 years.
The work along the Root River is important locally and on a much wider scale. Lessons learned within the watershed will be shared through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership to advance the Conservancy's national and global efforts to protect the Earth's critically important freshwater resources.