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Curbing Run-Off in the Shatto Ditch Watershed: RCPP In Action

Like much of the Mississippi River watershed during the past 150 years, large sections of Indiana have undergone extensive land use changes as vast wetlands, forestland, and prairies have been converted to productive cropland. While these croplands have played a crucial role in feeding our nation, runoff from these fields has also been a challenge.

“The environmental concerns in the Shatto Ditch watershed are very typical of challenges faced across the Midwestern corn belt,” said Jennifer Tank, University of Notre Dame Galla Professor.  “Excess runoff from agricultural fields that surround the stream run in to this waterway and then feed into rivers like the Tippecanoe River, and down into the Wabash and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.  Those nutrients cause problems as they head downstream.”

But USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and one very special partnership in northern Indiana are taking the initiative to help solve this resource concern.  Through funding from NRCS’ Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the Indiana Watershed Initiative is building on previous research that shows how two voluntary conservation practices are helping to improve water and soil quality in Shatto Ditch’s 3,000-acre watershed.

“The RCPP funding is what took this project to the next level.  The funding available for technical assistance is just unprecedented.  Normal grant proposals don’t allow us to ask for that kind of support for this kind of duration – over the course of five years. So I think it’s that kind of investment in a long-term watershed implementation that really took it to the next level,” said Tank.

Located along the Tippecanoe River in Kosciusko County, this partnership’s overarching goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness of two conservation practices – cover crops and the two-stage ditch and the ability of those conservation practices, when used together, to significantly reduce nutrient loss from agricultural fields.

While these two conservation practices have been researched, developed, and successfully applied in Indiana’s agricultural landscape on individual fields, a watershed scale implementation has never been evaluated in terms of improved water quality and soil health.

“We installed a two-stage ditch on 4.1 miles of this watershed. That’s as much as we can do with regards to the two-stage ditch without removing trees.  And, we’ve now got almost 70 percent of the cropable acres in the watershed in cover crops.  The state average is hovering around nine percent right now,” said Tank.  

Cover crops and the two-stage ditch work together. “With these two practices working in combination, we think we get an enhanced improvement of water quality by at the very least reducing nutrient loss from the field and then removing more nutrients that are lost after they enter the stream channel,” said Todd Royer,  Indiana University Associate Professor.

The Indiana Watershed Initiative is monitoring improvements within the watershed by conducting both water quality monitoring and soil health sampling. Students from University of Notre Dame visit Shatto Ditch every two weeks where they take samples instream and also directly from agricultural tile drains. In addition, they conduct soil sampling twice per year, once in the fall when cover crops are being planted and once in the spring during termination to allow the researchers to quantify how cover crops are improving soil health in the watershed.

“We’ve seen quite significant reductions on the watershed scale, but we’ve seen even greater reductions at the tile drain scale.  So, when we look at the tile drains draining a field with cover crops versus one without cover crops, we see much less nutrients leaving the tile drains from fields with cover crops,” said Shannon Speir, University of Notre Dame PhD Student.

Members from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, Kosciusko County Soil and Water Conservation District, NRCS, US Geological Service and The Nature Conservancy have worked diligently since the start of the project to recruit farmers in the watershed to take ownership and buy in to the two-stage design as a conservation solution and cover crops as a complimentary practice.  

The cooperating farmers and landowners have become fierce advocates for the project and the benefits they are seeing from these conservation practices.

“The landowners and the farmers are absolutely critical to the success of the project.  Being open and transparent with the data that we collect on their land has been a key trust-building partnership that keeps the project going year after year,” said Tank.

“Having all the partners, the landowners, the scientists, the government entities coming to play and working together to achieve these water quality success stories really make this project stand out,” said Speir.   

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program has been successful in coordinating the efforts, funding and resources of all the Indiana Watershed Initiative partners to deliver conservation assistance to private landowners and evaluate the results in a targeted area of Indiana.  The group is already planning ahead for the next phase of their project.

“From the knowledge that we’ve gained from this project, it’s going to launch a whole series of new research questions that we hope to pursue, particularly regarding long-term changes in nutrient loss with long-term adoption of cover crops, the long term functioning of the two-stage ditch and the ability of these two practices when done at a large watershed scale to significantly reduce nutrient loss from these landscapes and improve water quality in downstream ecosystems,” said Royer.

To learn more about this project, visit:

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. By leveraging collective resources and collaborating on common goals, RCPP demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships in delivering results for agriculture and conservation.

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