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BRANDON, Minn. – A three-hour drive separates the rolling hills of Minnesota’s Douglas County from the front steps of the Bell Museum of Natural History. But a year after the controversy over Troubled Waters-the Bell’s film on farmland pollution in the Mississippi River basin-brought words like “dead zone,” hypoxia” and “nitrogen fertilizer” to the attention of the general public, what’s happening in places like west-central Minnesota provides an insight into what the future holds for the health of the entire watershed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Douglas County is at the headwaters of the Chippewa,” says local Soil and Water Conservation District staffer Jerry Haggenmiller. “So the water here flows all down hill.”

Haggenmiller is saying this while leading a recent summer tour of innovative conservation measures being used on farmland in the region. Several miles south of here the Chippewa flows into the Minnesota River, which then meanders across the state before dumping its load into the Mississippi at Fort Snelling. One of the stops on the tour is a hilly cornfield near Brandon, where a handful of cattail-growing patches-each about the size of a two-car garage-are located in low spots. Buried beneath each spot of rank vegetation is an innovative drainage system that uses pea gravel to filter eroded sediment out of the water before it begins its long journey to the Gulf, a couple thousand miles away.

Later in the day, Haggenmiller and other conservation experts show off numerous other innovations for keeping sediment, nitrogen fertilizer and other contaminants out of the Chippewa, and eventually the Minnesota and Mississippi. Besides alternative drainage systems, on display are sediment basins, grassy waterways, rotational grazing systems and shoreline restoration.