In a recent article, I discussed how no matter where we live or work, we are all part of a watershed. Watersheds can be small or large, but they all drain into a common outlet such as a lake or stream. Here in the Lakes Area the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed is huge: 90,631 acres. One way or another we all impact this watershed. Whatever runoff enters our lakes directly affects their water quality and their health!
Although there are huge challenges facing all of us who live in the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed, there are so many opportunities to make water quality better. In visiting with Jim Sholly, who works for the Dickinson Soil and Water Conservation District as the watershed coordinator for the Iowa Great Lakes, there are so many things individuals and groups can do. Sholly says there is a wide range of water quality improvement practices for both rural and urban areas and that improvements can be made in almost any setting.
No practice or change in behavior is too small to improve water quality in our lakes. These practices are important no matter if it is around the lake or miles from nearest shoreline. We all need to be part of the solution.
For the past two years, Sholly has been working with residential home owners, businesses, lake shore owners, acreage owners and farmers to help them design plans that positively affect the runoff into the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed.
"It's really all about responsible land stewardship," Sholly said.
In reality, it's about taking care of the water on our property, not just getting it to run off and passing it on to someone or some place else. He notes that more and more people are taking the responsibility to do their part in helping improve our water quality.
Sholly finds it exciting that interest in water quality is becoming greater each year. More and more farmers are realizing the impact runoff from their land has on the area lakes and streams. The challenge becomes how to address this impact, while at the same time helping farmers continue to raise crops. That's what Sholly does.
"I'm really excited about a new practice that we are trying here in northwest Iowa It's called an 'Edge of Field' prairie strip," he said. "In this practice, the landowner puts 10-15 percent of a field into a section of strategically placed prairie grasses. For instance, if you put the strip of grass on the downhill side of the field, the plan is to intercept and infiltrate the water into the prairie before it enters a drainage ditch, culvert, road ditch or stream that eventually drains into a river or lake."
Sholly notes that Iowa State University has done several studies on this in southern and central Iowa, and data collected shows the Edge of Field practice works very well.
"Dr. Helmers, who heads this study, is encouraged by what he has seen," he said. "The practice protects the tile intakes and helping to meet water quality goals, while at the same time meeting the needs of the farmer planting corn and soybeans."
According to Dr. Helmers, data collected has been very encouraging.
"Based on our water quality monitoring at other sites in Iowa, we see a drastic reduction in sediment and nutrient loss with runoff in areas where prairie strips have been incorporated," Helmers said.
A LOCAL PROJECT
Sholly is currently working with Eric Hoien, who owns farmland on the east of Big Spirit. Currently, the drainage leaves the land through culverts to the ditch across the road and also into the Reeds Run drainage area before entering Big Spirit.
"I am really excited about the potential that the Edge of Field practice will do for us in the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed," Hoien said. "Sometime in 2014, I saw an article in the Des Moines Register about the STRIPS program (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips), and it intrigued me. I then looked at videos on the Internet about these strips. The idea of Edge of Field practice is that you can put 10 percent of a field edge into prairie grasses and it will take care of approximately 90 percent of the runoff. That made sense to me."
The initial step is to take a look at the topography and see where the low spots are and where the drainage is going. On the Hoien farm, some of those areas showed up along the road. These are areas where water might settle or run to after a large rainfall. Hoien worked with his tenant to make sure it would be in both of their interests to implement this practice without hampering the farmability of the land.
In November, Hoien had the 20-plus acre tract seeded with a mix of tall grass prairie seed incorporating many wildflowers into the mix. In addition, two sites will be set up to collect data concerning runoff.
"Two autosamplers will be installed this spring, one at the leading edge of the prairie strip (as it comes off the cropped area) and the second at the exit of the prairie strip (after it leaves the prairie)," Sholly said. "This will help us determine the differences in water, sediment and nitrate/phosphorous levels before it enters the prairie and after it has gone through the prairie and then left the strip."
It will take two to three years before the prairie grasses have totally taken hold. There will also be a mid-contract prescribed burn to invigorate the grasses and forbs.
Based on the results from other Edge of Field plantings, Hoien hopes to see a significant decrease in run-off and nitrate/phosphorous levels.
"Once established, the native prairie grass deep root structure will act as a sponge, when the water begins to run off," Sholly said. "The root structure is so massive that it will take care of a huge amount of water. As a result, much of it will never leave the field. Thus, the prairie will intercept and infiltrate the water -- in this case before it ever reaches the culverts or Reeds Run."
Hoien says this is meant to be a long-term investment for at least 10 years. After the contract is up, there appears to be the opportunity to re-enroll the land.
"For years, the typical thought process has been to get that extra water off of the property, never thinking about the consequences as it enters our lakes and streams or adjacent neighbors," he said. "It is really our responsibility to take care of the water on our property, not just pass it on to someone else."
Sholly says this is also going to act as a demonstration site where other landowners can come and witness the results.
"The landowner gets the benefit of still being able to farm the ground, while at the same time getting to protect his own land and also the watershed as it carries run-off to the lake," he said.
For more information about this program or other conservation programs, give Sholly a call at (712) 336-3782 ext. 3.