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Cleaning Up a Watershed through Conservation

by Jason Johnson, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service

: Since 2012, NRCS has provided nearly $1 million to landowners in the Black Hawk Lake Watershed to help fund conservation practices that help improve water quality—like the stream bank stabilization on Bethune Family Farms.

Since 2012, NRCS has provided nearly $1 million to landowners in the Black Hawk Lake Watershed to help fund conservation practices that help improve water quality—like the stream bank stabilization on Bethune Family Farms.

June 7, 2017 - Linda Ritchie and her siblings have always been conscious of the quality of their drinking water. Growing up on their Sac County farm – Bethune Family Farms ­– they drank straight from the well. Today, Ritchie is applying conservation practices on the family’s 740 acres to keep local water bodies, including nearby Black Hawk Lake, free from pollutants such as sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen.

National Water Quality Initiative
In 2012, USDA chose the Black Hawk Lake Watershed as one of four Iowa watersheds to improve water quality and aquatic habitats through the National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI). NWQI is a conservation effort of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that helps farmers plan and implement conservation practices in targeted watersheds that benefit water quality.

The watershed covers more than 13,000 acres in Sac and Carroll counties. The dominant feature of the watershed is Black Hawk Lake, which is listed on the Iowa 303(d) Impaired Waters List.

“We are working to reduce sedimentation which carries phosphorus to the lake, causing algae blooms,” said Denis Schulte, district conservationist for NRCS in Sac and Calhoun counties. “We can manage the algae blooms and restore the lake to what it once was with conservation structures, management practices, urban practices and in-lake work.”

This opportunity for NRCS assistance also corresponded with a change in farm operations. Wayne Poen, who farmed the family’s land for more than 30 years, passed away, leaving Ritchie and her siblings to find a new tenant. It was only fitting they chose Wayne’s son, Scott. “He was very close with my father, Louie, growing up,” said Ritchie. “We thought it was fitting to choose him as the next operator.”


No-Till
As a new farmer, Poen says he wants to be on the cutting edge of ag technology. Whether it’s using GPS precision farming tools, growing cover crops or improving soil health, he wants be a good steward of the land.

“I am no-tilling and strip-tilling to reduce inputs and apply my own fertilizer. It also feels good to keep the soil in place and reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients from leaving the farm, and to protect Black Hawk Lake from further pollution,” said Poen.

NRCS’ Schulte says when farmers adopt farming practices like no-till and strip-till, it not only reduces the amount of soil leaving the farm, but it can also improve crop production and the overall net return for the farming operation. “No-till helps increase microbial activity, which helps build soil structure and improve overall soil health,” he said. “No-till also helps sequester additional carbon in the soil and forms root channels that increase water infiltration.”

Stream Bank Stabilization
Several tributaries of Carnarvon Creek— a primary water source that flows into Black Hawk Lake—wind through Ritchie’s land. Years of water level fluctuations and heavy rains caused stream banks to sluff or erode, generating constant sediment flows to the lake. With the help of NRCS, Ritchie  stabilized 1,230 feet of stream bank on her property. This involves reshaping the banks by reducing the slope, and stabilizing the banks with rip rap in sensitive areas of the stream.

Through their conservation work, Ritchie and Poen received the 2014 Black Hawk Lake Watershed Conservation Award, which honors landowners and producers for promoting and implementing conservation practices that improve the health of the watershed.

For more information about conservation practices and programs, or a conservation plan for your farm, contact your local NRCS office.