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      3 Lessons from the Iowa Water Conference

      Several of our staff attended the Iowa Water Conference on March 12 and 13.  The event brings together hundreds of smart, hard-working people that are working  to improve water quality, restore aquatic habitat, and control flooding across the state of Iowa.  We always learn a lot from both the presenters and the other attendees, and come away energized.  Here are our top three lessons we learned this year:

      1. Farms can simultaneously improve water quality and wildlife habitat
      Adam Janke, Extension Wildlife Specialist, talked about how the practices being used for nutrient reduction can also benefit many of Iowa’s species of greatest conservation need.  For example, trumpeter swans like CREP wetlands. Migrating ringneck ducks and Topeka shiners use oxbow wetlands.   Meadowlarks use prairie strips. We will be pursuing these kinds of synergies in three watersheds with a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, so it was great to hear specifics.
      2. Retailers of agricultural products need to be part of water quality solutions
      Chris Jones from University of Iowa shared some disturbing data from northwest Iowa.  In the Floyd and Rock River watersheds, livestock production and manure application has doubled since 1980, but commercial fertilizer sales have remained the same.  In those watersheds, nitrogen is being applied at 80-100 lbs/acre above the MRTN (Maximum Return to Nitrogen), leading to nitrate concentrations in the Floyd and Rock rivers that are twice as high as other streams in western Iowa.  Clearly, some farmers aren’t thinking about their manure management plan or water quality when they purchase nitrogen fertilizer, and their retailers aren’t bringing it up.  When our conversations about agriculture remain siloed (pardon the pun), water quality suffers.
      However, at another session, we learned how ag retailers with the Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance are showing leadership on water quality — including water quality monitoring in the Raccoon River and developing a code of practice for nitrogen application to reduce losses from farm fields while increasing return on investment (ROI). Precision agriculture tools are also being used to identify land where inputs aren’t generating a good ROI, and use that information to make conservation decisions that benefit both the bottom line and the environment.  Gregg Schmitz of Nutrien shared an example where revenues from a 140 acre farm were increased by putting 70 acres into CRP and redeploying inputs into the other half.  Surveys show that agriculture retailers and crop consultants are trusted sources of information for farmers, so their involvement will be essential to solving our water quality challenges.  We’re grateful for the support of Key Cooperative and Heartland Cooperative on field days and producer engagement in the Squaw Creek watershed.
      3.  Water quality improvements are possible, but require a commitment of both time and money
      Neil Shaffer, an award-winning watershed coordinator in northeast Iowa, shared some heartening success stories.  Nitrate leaving the Staff Creek and Beaver Creek watershed was reduced by 47%. Brook trout were reintroduced to a tributary of Silver Creek.  In both cases, it took over 8 years of monitoring and $3-5 million of funding for conservation practices to see those changes.  We’re well aware that water quality requires a long-term commitment and are in this for the long haul.

      Watershed Planning Update

      An update on our watershed planning efforts is long overdue.  Our NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant for the “Keigley” watershed project wrapped up in September of 2018.  Here’s some of the highlights from 2017-2018 and what we’ll be doing next.

      A change in focus:  No more need to explain that by “Keigley Branch Watershed” we really mean “part of the South Skunk River.”  In the future, we’ll be working with the entire 200,556-acre watershed that drains to the South Skunk River above the confluence with Squaw Creek in Ames. On paper, a single ten-digit hydrologic unit (HUC10) seemed like a more manageable project, but as we talked with the public it became clear that watershed plans and partnerships would be more effective if the river’s headwaters in Hamilton County were included sooner rather than later.

      Map of the Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed

      Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed

      A new Watershed Management Authority (WMA):  The Headwaters of the South Skunk River WMA was formed in August 2018 with seven signatories:

      • Story County Supervisors
      • Story County Soil & Water Conservation District
      • Hamilton County Soil & Water Conservation District
      • City of Ames
      • City of Story City
      • City of Roland
      • City of Randall

      We hope more jurisdictions will join as the partnership takes shape.  Good communication between the cities, counties, and conservation districts in a watershed leads to more and better projects that improve water quality and soil health.

      Great public input:  80 people—56 residents, 15 high school students, and 9 ISU students—attended our public workshops.  The goals and implementation strategies they suggested will provide a great starting point for the WMA to develop an actionable plan for conservation in the Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed.

      An interactive map of conservation opportunities:  Between this project and Story County’s assessment of its watersheds, we have identified suitable spots for bioreactors, grassed waterways, constructed wetlands and other agricultural conservation practices across 728,144 acres! Check out our interactive map to get ideas for conservation practices that might work on your farm or in your watershed, along with an explanation of each practice.

      Winter is a busy season for grant-writing.  We are currently looking for funding to provide education and technical assistance to farmers and landowners in this watershed, to build partnerships with more groups in Hamilton County, to fill in missing information identified during the planning process, and to support the new WMA in completing a plan for the Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed.   This is just the beginning!

      Local creeks can be special places

      Local creeks can be special places

      March 1, 2017

      I spent Sunday hiking along Clear Creek in the company of a curious herd of six deer, who came within 20 feet of me.  Bigger rivers may afford more opportunities for boating.  Cold-water trout streams in the northeast part of the state may have better fishing.  But the warm-water creeks in Central Iowa have their own charms.

      Deer by Clear Creek

      Deer by Clear Creek in Munn Woods

      Clear Creek starts in Boone County and passes through Munn Woods and Pammel Woods in Ames before joining Squaw Creek.  As a boy, the woods along this creek was one of my favorite places, full of interesting rocks and animal tracks and birds and crayfish, the site of both noisy stick battles with my friends and quiet contemplation.

      As my environmental consciousness grew, I would go to the woods to pick up litter.  At the time, I had no idea the storm drain emptied to creek, or else I would have stopped my friends from throwing pop cans down there.  A recent survey showed that 37% of Iowans imagine that storm sewers go to the wastewater treatment plan or soak into the ground, so labels like this one below are a valuable reminder.

      Storm drain label: "No dumping - drains to creek"

      Labeled storm drain in Ames: “No Dumping. Drains to Creek”

      In revisiting Clear Creek, I was struck by what a marvelous thing a creek can be if given some space to roam. (Thank you Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.)  I’ve heard from many people in both the city and the country who share my fond memories of time spent by the creek near where they grew up.  Not every Iowa creek has hills and woods this dramatic, but if we treat them as something more than drainage systems for our convenience, any local creek can instill in a child the same sense of wonder and discovery that this one did for me.

      -Dan Haug, Watershed Educator

      Clear Creek meanders through Munn Woods

      Clear Creek meanders through Munn Woods