Hewitt Creek: 'A model for the Midwest'

Farms work to clean up creeks

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DYERSVILLE — A farmer-led effort to clean up Hewitt and Hickory creeks northeast of here bills itself as “a model for Iowa and the Midwest.”

Watershed leaders say the effort shows that farmers can reduce nutrients and sediment to acceptable levels without being forced by regulation to do so.

“Here we have proven results that people need to know about,” said Jeff Pape, chairman of the Hewitt Creek Watershed Improvement Association, during a bus tour this past Wednesday of the 49-square-mile watershed.

“Their success is a good example of a public-private partnership that benefits everyone,” said State Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, a member of both the Agriculture and Natural Resources and Environment committees.

“The farmers got public funds to implement conservation practices, and we all get cleaner water,” said Zumbach, one of several elected officials on the tour.

“With 10 years of success under their belt, this shows that farmers can bring local solutions to the table,” said Mike Naig, deputy secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

At the first stop, a section of creek whose water has been regularly monitored during the 10-year life of the project, Pape said the effort started after state and federal officials declared Hewitt and Hickory creeks impaired by elevated levels of sediment, nitrates and phosphorus.

Pape and a few other conservation-minded farmers recruited neighbors until the project’s participation rate approached 85 percent of the farmers in the watershed.

They collected data that helped them implement an incentive program targeting practices and management strategies that have lowered nutrient concentrations in the creeks.

Chad Ingels, an Iowa State University Extension watershed specialist, cited monitoring data that show the efforts have paid off in cleaner water.

In four of the past five years, Ingels said, the season-long average nitrate level has been below 10 parts per million, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water standard.

That level was observed only once in the first five years after formation of the watershed group, he said.

In two of the past three years, phosphorus has tested below 1 parts per million following rain events.

“We never hit that mark in the first seven years of the effort,” he said.

Sediment delivery in the watershed has averaged about 6,000 tons per year over the past five years, which compares with 11,000 tons per year over the 10-year life of the program, according to Ingels.

Pape said a resurgence of aquatic life in the creeks, both of which drain to the North Fork of the Maquoketa River, underscores the statistics’ validity.

“When I was a kid, we fished in the creek. Nobody fished there for years, but now they are back fishing it again,” he said.

At the second stop, Ingels said a denitrification bioreactor on Mike Knipper’s farm has been removing more than 30 percent of the nitrate in tile water before it enters the creek.

Knipper and other farmers in the watershed extolled the water and soil benefits of no-till grain cultivation and cover crops, maintaining that with those practices they can save soil, improve water quality and realize yields equal to or better than those of neighbors using conventional tillage.

Combining cover crops and no till with cattle, which feed upon cornstalks, waste grain and cover crops, “is a model for sustainable agriculture,” said Jack Smith, who farms near Bankston.

The tour also stopped at one of the watershed’s many large livestock operations, where Craig Recker and family members feed thousands of cattle each year.

The Reckers, with government assistance, have installed a pair of containment structures which together can hold 2.5 million gallons of manure.

Those structures store the manure, which Craig Recker calls “liquid gold,” until it can be safely injected into farm fields in the fall.

“A lot of guys in the watershed are putting in tanks to contain the manure. You want to be proactive instead of them chasing you around to do something,” he said.

Pape said the manure containment tanks, along with no till, cover crops and more than 40 miles of grass waterways installed since the program’s inception, have been key components in cleaning up the water in Hewitt and Hickory creeks.

The effort has been funded by Iowa Farm Bureau — which provided $90,000 seed money to demonstrate the farmer-led approach — and a pair of Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board grants totaling nearly $1 million.

Early success on Hewitt Creek helped to secure a $5 million USDA-NRCS Mississippi River Basin Initiative project that includes the watersheds of Hewitt Creek, Bear Creek and the headwaters of the North Fork.

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