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Conservation assessments contribute to watershed goals

Article cover photo
Clayton County farmer Brian Wirkler reviews the Howard Creek watershed conceptual map with Iowa Soybean Association's Karl Gesch at an open house event in St. Olaf. Watershed residents dropped by to see the visual results of their watershed planning meetings over the last nine months. (Photo: Carol Brown/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

After months of discussing water quality in Howard Creek, residents of this northeast Iowa watershed now have a blueprint for improvement.

A watershed plan, developed by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), was unveiled on Sept. 12 in St. Olaf. The association developed the strategy at the recommendation of the Clayton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). It was one of 19 Iowa watersheds nominated by the SWCDs for planning assistance.

The plan includes watershed goals established by farmers and landowners and a map showing where conservation practices could be used to achieve them. The effort began in January with a farmer/landowner meeting.

 “In developing a watershed plan, I analyze details such as watershed size, topography and historical data along with the established goals and prepare a conceptual picture of what the watershed could look like if the goals were met,” said Karl Gesch, ISA watershed coordinator and resource management specialist.

Watershed residents are responsible for carrying out the actions to achieve the plan’s goals, which could be clean drinking water, flood mitigation or healthy rivers. Each watershed in Iowa is mostly rural farmland, so the bulk of the goals fall upon the farmer or rural landowner.

Next steps

The question Howard Creek participants most asked at the unveiling was, “What’s next?”

How does a watershed plan go from concept to completion? Landowners and farmers are key components.

Gesch said that a next step could be for residents to apply to the state for priority watershed funding through programs such as the Iowa Water Quality Initiative (WQI). The WQIs are usually three-year projects that align with the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). The strategy lists ways to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads by a total of 45 percent in Iowa’s waterbodies.

Bioreactors, saturated buffers and targeted wetlands are strategies listed in the NRS to reduce nitrogen, but have significant costs associated with them. Programs such as WQIs provide funding to farmers for bioreactor installation or to purchase cover crop seed and more.

A watershed plan and its conceptual map shows approximate locations for conservation farming practices. Farmers and landowners get a good idea of where an edge-of-field structure like a bioreactor could be placed. But an expert must walk the land and site an exact location to ensure the best performance.

ISA has completed 17 watershed plans over the last five years. It currently has five in various stages of completion. The Howard Creek work is supported by grants from U.S. Department of Agriculture–Natural Resources Conservation Service. ISA’s conservation assessments are done with help from the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance.

Individual action

Howard Creek watershed residents can use their newly established plan to take personal action for improved water quality. The individual farmer or landowner can adopt conservation farming practices, whether their watershed is a priority project or not. It can start with a conservation assessment of their farm.

A conservation assessment is a picture of current practices on individual fields. Heath Ellison, ISA operations manager, prepares the assessments and has 40-some in the works.

“The assessment looks at things such as the soil conditioning index (SCI), Soil Tillage Intensity Rating (STIR), erosion rates, and considers soil type, slopes and cropping systems,” said Ellison. “It includes aerial imagery of the farm over the years, showing how fields were managed historically to the present.”

Image analysis can also show water movement and erosion including ephemeral gullies – those channels in a field that show up every time after a hard rain, said Ellison.

Once an assessment is completed, Ellison reviews it with the farmer and/or landowner and they discuss possible changes for better soil and cleaner water. For example, if there is a high STIR number for a field, moving to strip-tillage or no-till could be an option or a grass waterway could be added in the ephemeral gully areas.

Andrew Lauver grows corn and soybeans with his brother, their parents and grandparents on their fifth-generation family farm. He had heard Ellison talk about conservation assessments during an ISA Experience class for young ISA members. That sparked his interest to contact Ellison to assess 500 acres of his family’s Calhoun County farm.

“I was surprised that the assessment was so robust,” said Lauver. “The information Heath provided was something we hadn’t seen before, especially when it comes to soil erosion and soil health. This service that ISA provides was invaluable to my family.”

The Lauver family will probably install a grass waterway on the field that showed a higher rate of soil erosion. Just as important, it got all three generations talking together about farm management decisions.  Lauver said the assessment encouraged the whole family to take a good look at what they’re doing and the options they have.

A farmland assessment is a good idea if there is a watershed plan in place, but one can be done anytime.  A farmer is not required to do anything after an assessment is complete. But the baseline is there when they are ready to start making changes to improve soil health and water quality. Farmers and landowners then work with local Soil and Water Conservation District and USDA Service Center staff to determine if state or federal programs can assist with the transition to new practices.

Switching to no-till, adding cover crops, and installing edge-of-field structures, such as a bioreactor, all help to reduce nutrients in the water and combat soil erosion. Knowing how to improve farm management for healthier soil also contributes to the health of the watershed.

For more about the watershed planning process, read the series:

Part 1: Local leadership enhances watershed plans

Part 2: Laying the foundation for watershed planning

Part 3: Go big and go home: Setting watershed goals

Part 4: Setting the lineup for watershed wins

Part 5: Work the plan


Contact Carol Brown at

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