5 ways to get more conservation bang for our buck

5 ways to get more conservation bang for our buck

  On any field in Iowa, cover crops will improve soil health, sequester carbon, and prevent nutrients from washing down to the Gulf of Mexico.  There are at least six situations where cover crops can add to the farmer's bottom line, but in other situations, or to help encourage farmers to make that initial investment and get through the troubleshooting stage that comes with any new practice, public cost sharing can make a difference.  Most taxpayers I talk to are quite willing to pay farmers who are employing conservation practices for the ecosystem services they provide.  But we either can't afford to or aren't willing to invest at the scale needed to achieve universal adoption of cover crops and other conservation practices, and that means we have to make some decision about where to invest first, so as to get the most nutrient reduction (and hopefully carbon sequestration, soil protection, flood reduction, and other benefits) for our buck. Most of those discussions...
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2020 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

2020 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

It turns out that stream monitoring is quite compatible with social distancing.  28 volunteers participated in the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition's 13th spring water quality snapshot on May 30 and 31.  Together we tested water quality at 43 sites on Squaw Creek, its tributaries, and the South Skunk River!  This time, Prairie Rivers of Iowa assembled the equipment, organized the event, and entered the data.  We're happy to support this dedicated group of citizen scientists in better understanding and drawing attention to our local rivers and creeks.  Here's a few selfies taken by participants, a mix of long-term volunteers and new faces. As the name implies, this is a snapshot in time.   The water quality on one sunny weekend in May is not necessarily representative of the month, let alone the year.  As described here and here, water quality can change dramatically in response to a big rainstorm.  But for this moment in time, testing many sites gives us a very detailed...
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May showers bring awesome graphs!

Last weekend's rains (5-17-2020) provide a clear illustration of how water and nitrate make their way to Squaw Creek. How water reaches Squaw Creek after a rain It started raining late Saturday night and stopped around 3AM Sunday. The rain gage outside my house in Ames showed 0.9 inches.  The water hitting my driveway and other paved surfaces in my neighborhood enters a storm sewer that goes directly to a tributary of Squaw Creek.  (In newer neighborhoods, the water would be slowed down by a pond or detention basin).  This runoff takes about an hour to make its way down Squaw Creek to the USGS stream gage at Lincoln Way.  In response to urban runoff and the rain that fell directly on the channel, we can see a quick rise in the water level, and quick fall. Over the next 15 hours, Squaw Creek rose another foot as it was joined by water that fell as far away as Stratford and Stanhope. Other...
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Spring flowers by College Creek

We're all a bit stir-crazy and can benefit from spring weather and spring flowers.  If you're in Ames, I recommend walking east of the ISU campus, where (as of April 5) the ground is carpeted with blue flowered squills, Scilla siberica.  It's not often that you see that color blue in nature, or in that quantity! While you're there, take a peek in College Creek.  When I visited, the water was clear, the bottom was rocky, and it was full of 4-6 inch fish. This was great to see.  College Creek used to be a dump, but between legal action against businesses and mobile home parks that were discharging sewage, urban conservation projects, and the annual trash clean-up event, it's become a lovely place.  Most of our backyard streams have the same potential, if we treat them right. I should caution you that that E. coli levels in College Creek and other streams in Ames often exceed the primary contact recreation standard, but you're...
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Watershed Education With All Ages

Watershed Education With All Ages

Prairie Rivers of Iowa kicked off 2020 with watershed education for both the young and old. Over four sessions in January and February, watershed educator Dan Haug spoke with 20 retirees for an Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning (OLLI) class at the Iowa State University Alumni Center.  In addition to unpacking difficult topics like the Clean Water Act and water monitoring, Dan introduced the class to online resources he uses to find out about water quality in local rivers and lakes, and about landuse and soils in their watersheds.  The class brought back examples and asked questions about rivers, lakes, and drinking water in their home towns and vacation spots, giving us all a better picture of water quality issues and solutions around the state. On February 7-9, high school students from Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, and Oklahoma attended a training on the ISU campus for the 4-H Ag Innovators Experience, sponsored by Bayer and the national 4-H council.  By training teenage...
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New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthy, Support Local Farmers, Protect Land and Water

New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthy, Support Local Farmers, Protect Land and Water

Thank you to the board members who brought in donuts and coworkers who brought home-baked desserts to the office in 2019.  As a result, my New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and eat healthier! Kidding aside, Prairie Rivers of Iowa is an organization with a long track record of supporting local food systems.  Local food is a much better framework for healthy eating than picking processed foods based on high-this or low-that claims on the box.  Whole foods—vegetables from the farmers market or CSA, eggs from my backyard chickens, fruit from U-pick orchards—are not just nutritious but a source of joy in the harvesting, purchasing, and cooking.  “Eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables in 2020” is a pledge that makes me look forward to the coming year rather than dreading it. But I’m not overweight and in pain because I don’t eat fruits and veg.  Like most members of my extended family, I have chronic health conditions that are exacerbated...
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2018 Impaired Waters List

2018 Impaired Waters List

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is seeking public comment on the newly released draft impaired waters list.  Prairie Rivers of Iowa will be recommending that Squaw Creek and East Indian Creek be added to "Waters in Need of Further Investigation."  We'll also take this opportunity to try to demystify a topic that can be confusing, using examples from the South Skunk River watershed. Every two years, the DNR is required to assess the available data to determine whether Iowa's lakes, rivers, and wetlands are meeting their designated uses.  About half the rivers, and a bit more of the lakes have enough data to assess.  Since new waters are considered each cycle, the length of the impaired waters list doesn't really tell us whether water quality is getting worse.  Since nutrients aren't considered for most uses and the data used for the 2018 assessment is from 2014-2016, it doesn't tell us whether the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is working.  What it...
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Low hanging fruit?

Low hanging fruit?

Nitrogen rate management (MRTN) is the low-hanging fruit of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a win-win for profitability and the environment.  On closer inspection, that fruit is even juicier than we thought; but harder to reach.   Here’s the paradox of nutrient management that the general public fails to grasp.  We don’t know with any certainty at application time how much nitrogen the corn crop will need or how much nitrogen will be left in the soil come July when the crop starts maturing.  Corn stalk nitrogen tests and split applications can improve the accuracy of the guess, but farmers still have to guess.  If they guess too low, they lose income.  So most farmers err on the high side, which means that (all else being equal) more nitrogen will end up in our streams. Figure by John Sawyer at ISU.  The economically optimum nitrogen rate varies by year, even on the same field. We may not know what’s the right amount of nitrogen...
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Watershed Matchup #5: Grant Creek Vs. West Indian Creek

Watershed Matchup #5: Grant Creek Vs. West Indian Creek

GIS mapping is a big part of my job, but I'll be the first to admit there’s a limit to what you  can learn about a stream without getting your feet wet, or at least dipping a bucket into the water. I’ve been testing West Indian Creek and Grant Creek at the lovely Jennett Heritage Area, just above their confluence. (With some help from David Stein and Rick Dietz)  West Indian Creek flows through Nevada and drains 28,417 acres at this point.  Grant Creek, also known as Drainage Ditch 5, drains 13,344 acres between Ames and Nevada. Based on soils and landcover in the watershed, I’d expect Grant Creek to have comparable or slightly worse water quality than West Indian Creek.  There are nutrient loading models available online and in the Story County Watershed Assessment that predict just that. Instead, I’ve found that water quality is consistently better in Grant Creek.  West Indian Creek has normal nitrate levels but very high phosphorus levels. ...
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Lake Appreciation Month – Cairo Lake

Lake Appreciation Month – Cairo Lake

"None of the lakes hereabout are very deep. They are all marsh-like, only distinguished from a thousand marshes by the courtesy of the pioneer who called them lakes to suit his fancy, recognizing their greater width and possibly, in some cases their bluffy shores." -Thomas H. McBride, Geology of Hamilton and Wright Counties (1910)   The governor has proclaimed July as Lake Appreciation Month. We've got a few lakes in the South Skunk River basin that we appreciate for different reasons. Hickory Grove Lake is a 100-acre impoundment that we appreciate for swimming and fishing. The effort involved in constructing it and now restoring it is a testament to how much Story County residents value our lakes. Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake is a 137-acre former gravel pit that we appreciate for paddle sports, fishing, and admiring from the trails. Little Wall Lake is a 249-acre natural lake that we appreciate most for swimming and motorized sports. Cairo Lake is a 1300-acre former lake...
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