ISA Newsroom

Agricultural news farmers want to know.

Watershed plans focus goals for improved water quality

Article cover photo
Residents of the Mill Creek-Cedar River watershed work with Corey McKinney (left) at a recent watershed planning meeting. It was one of four meetings held this summer to further focus priorities for a watershed plan. (Photo: Carol Brown/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

Members of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Environmental Programs and Services (EPS) program use the terms “watershed” and “watershed plans” in their everyday vocabulary. But what is a watershed plan and what’s involved in creating one?

The EPS team is leading four watersheds as they develop plans that will direct residents toward improved water quality. These plans walk through how residents are going to address improving the issues found within their watershed.

The four plans are for the watersheds: West Buttrick Creek (Greene and Webster counties), Skillet Creek (Webster County), Mill Creek–Cedar River (Johnson and Cedar counties), and Twin Cedars (Marion and Mahaska counties). These watersheds were selected for an Iowa Partners for Conservation grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The plans will be completed by next spring, said Karl Gesch, ISA project manager. Eventually, they will be used to help each watershed pursue additional funding to implement priority conservation practices to reach their goals.

Gesch and Corey McKinney, ISA EPS natural resource specialist, recently held meetings in each of the watersheds, which was their second meeting in the planning process.

“These recent meetings helped each group identify conservation practices that could and should be implemented within their respective watersheds,” said Gesch. “The meetings act as workshops and the activities we complete help the attendees focus on the particular issues within their watershed and the practices that can be done to address them.”

Different watersheds, different solutions

“Every watershed is unique,” McKinney said. “Although there are overlapping issues found across the state,  there’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach. Watershed plans are like a road map and we rely on the farmers to generate the watershed goals and where they want to go.”

The EPS team helps by creating that roadmap, McKinney said.

For example, one watershed’s geography may consist of rolling hills and timber areas, which may include issues of soil erosion and runoff. Another watershed may have flat lands with poor drainage and high levels of nutrients entering the rivers and streams. Each of the scenarios require a different set of solutions. It’s up to the people within the watershed to determine the priorities that need addressing the most, McKinney said.

Gesch and McKinney will take the outcomes from these working sessions and apply their priorities to the land through a mapping software program. The output from the software creates a map indicating where practices could go to achieve the priority goals for each watershed.

The map could indicate fields that would benefit most from adding a cover crop, locations that have proper drainage slopes for a bioreactor or saturated buffer or even a wetland and more.

The map is just part of a comprehensive watershed plan authored by the EPS team that paints the picture of the watershed. The document includes the watershed topography, farming practices found within the watershed, nutrient content of the area rivers and streams, as well as the watershed goals and the strategies that could help achieve those goals. The EPS resumé for creating watershed plans is strong, with more than 20 completed and available to read on the ISA website.

Why have a watershed plan?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), in place since 2013, is a major driver for water quality improvement. The strategy is a result from a directive of the Hypoxia Task Force, established in 2008, to reduce the hypoxia or “dead” zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone is created by excess nutrients in the Mississippi River entering the Gulf. Iowa is one of 12 states along the Mississippi River with a Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Certain watersheds have been indicated by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the Iowa NRCS as priority watersheds. Reducing nutrient levels within the priority watersheds is the first step toward the Iowa NRS success. Reducing nutrients in Iowa’s waterbodies is a statewide goal and we’re working with farmers to recognize their role in achieving that goal, Gesch said.

“It starts at the farm level,” Gesch said. “Since Iowa is 85 percent agriculture, we have great opportunities to address these issues within the rural community.”

There are provisions for point-source pollution also in the Iowa NRS, Gesch noted. Those are also being addressed through industry and community wastewater regulations. The EPS team, however, is farmer-focused.

“We are helping farmers and landowners to proactively identify and implement the best approaches to improve water quality,” Gesch said.

Next steps

The EPS team will have follow-up meetings within the four watersheds to share the assessments and maps of potential practice locations. The meetings will be open to the public as their input is necessary as they take ownership of the watershed plans.  

When the watershed residents have completed the watershed planning process, they are in a position to seek state, federal or private funding to implement the plan. With the passing of the water quality bill (SF 512), money will become available to support water quality improvement efforts in the state including implementing the goals in these and other watershed plans.

This material is based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 6000004159. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Contact Carol Brown at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

Podcast Series See more

Podcast Library Graphic