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Water quality improvement project underway in four watersheds

Article cover photo
Watershed planning meetings involve farmers, landowners, community citizens and other stakeholders working together for improved water quality. Meetings such as this help establish goals and ownership of watershed issues and solutions. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

An Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) project underway will help advance locally led watershed planning and conservation assessments in four key areas of Iowa.

Four watersheds have been selected as the focus of an Iowa Partners for Conservation grant project through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The watersheds, selected based on the readiness of participation of their residents, include: West Buttrick Creek (Greene and Webster counties), Skillet Creek (Webster Co.), Mill Creek–Cedar River (Johnson and Cedar counties), and Twin Cedars (Marion and Mahaska counties).

Farmers, watershed management authorities, NRCS, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) nominated numerous watersheds for the focus of the project. The ISA Environmental Programs and Services (EPS) team will lead the project supporting farmers, landowners, NRCS staff and other local partners to increase conservation adoption in those watersheds. Team members and field staff will develop watershed-scale plans and conduct field conservation assessments with farmers one-on-one.

“By integrating farm-scale research and conservation assessments with watershed-scale planning, we can engage farmers in multiple ways to maximize benefits of participation,” said Karl Gesch, EPS project manager at ISA. “We are coordinating with ISA’s On-Farm Network® team to offer research opportunities to farmers within these watersheds, including replicated strip trials, water monitoring and nitrogen benchmarking.”

The four watersheds in this project were selected based on the readiness of their residents.

EPS staff facilitated discussions in each of the four watersheds this past winter, helping to identify local issues and priorities.

“One of our goals was to ensure every voice was heard,” Gesch said, noting the meetings focused on interaction between attendees. “This helps watershed residents learn from one another about concerns, priorities and successes, which creates more engagement and ownership within the project.”

The top priorities identified by the watershed groups included soil health, water quality, conservation practices and programs, education and outreach, flooding, funding and economics.

The EPS team is currently meeting with individual farmers within these watersheds to develop conservation assessments, enroll them in on-farm trials and water monitoring for the year. The project goal is to complete 32 conservation assessments, which are reports that provide information on individual farm fields. Each report summarizes aspects of individual fields including such things as soil conditioning index, erosion rates and STIR (Soil Tillage Intensity Rating). The assessments include soil type, slopes and cropping system evaluations as well as aerial imagery of the farm showing changes in field management over several decades or longer.

“During the spring and summer months, we will conduct field work to assess watershed conditions. We’ll continue to connect with farmers individually and hold follow-up watershed meetings,” Gesch said.

The watershed plans will be completed within a year, said Gesch, and eventually will be used to help each watershed pursue additional funding to implement priority conservation practices and other goals within the plans.

Contact Carol Brown at

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