Soil and water

How a small watershed got off Iowa’s list of hundreds of water problems

Bob Kremer rides his ATV on a road that crosses Farmers Creek, which runs through some of his farmland in Jackson County. He grows row crops and finishes 250 to 300 cattle in eastern Iowa. What happens on this farm and neighboring farms along the creek has a direct impact on the health of the waterway.

There are many obstacles on his land to prevent soil and manure from flowing into this tributary of the Maquoketa River. There is a livestock structure with a concrete floor to prevent manure from seeping into the ground. Kremer practices no-till agriculture, has grassy banks along the creek, and there are earthen dykes to retain water in particularly wet years.

“We’re just borrowing this land from the future generation, so the idea was to leave it as good or better than it was when we got it,” Kremer said in May. “Let’s save the soil.”

Kremer admits that there aren’t many people doing as much conservation as he does on his farm.

A success story that required years of work

Until just a few months ago, Farmers Creek was on Iowa’s list of degraded waters. Enough landowners in the area have begun to follow Kremer’s lead to remove Farmers Creek from this list. It took years of work. Kremer’s curation began in the early 2000s, around the time he landed on the list. The EPA requires all states to update this record every two years.

There are three criteria for designating impaired waters: recreational (swimming, fishing, boating), biological (fish and invertebrates), and human drinking water.

“In this case, with the fish killed and then the additional sampling done in the stream, it was obvious that the biological community was not doing what it was supposed to do,” said Jennifer Kurth, DNR biologist from the Iowa.

The DNR estimates that about 14,000 tons of sediment from the highly erodible agricultural lands surrounding the stream flowed into it each year. Kurth said it’s not very common to remove impaired water from the list.

“It happens,” Kurth said. “But this is the first we’ve done that’s based on biological integrity, fish and invertebrate scores.”

Fast forward to today and the creek is in much better shape. Sediment from erosion is declining and recent samples show a greater diversity of fish and invertebrate species. In late April, Kurth said she had been officially delisted as impaired water.

Getting landowner buy-in took a personal touch

Farmers Creek is in a better place, but it took nearly two decades and a personal touch to get there. Kurth said the biggest thing this watershed had going for it was Michelle Turner of the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Michelle Turner stands outside the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District in Maquoketa, where she worked to remove Farmers Creek from the Iowa DNR’s list of impaired waters.

Beginning in 2005, Turner helped local farmers learn about various federal and state public funds that encourage clean water by implementing practices like Kremer’s.

After all, these practices are all voluntary in the state, so an impaired designation requires no change.

Turner says it’s nice to get to know all of the landowners personally.

“You don’t have that advantage in a very large watershed that crosses entire rivers [that span] five or six counties,” Turner said. “But when you farm a little 30,000 acres with 125 landowners, you get to know them and befriend them, I think you get more done.”

Turner says much of the membership has come from building local buzz through radio and local newsletters and helping educate landowners.

“Nobody wants to be the only guy on the block doing nothing,” Turner said. “I think when you start seeing everyone in the neighborhood on board, more people wanted to get involved.”

Solving a Bigger Water Quality Problem in Iowa

According to David Cwiertny, a civil and environmental engineer from the University of Iowa, Farmers Creek is a local success story that other communities can learn from. He said many other waterways have the same symptoms, but the remedy is not easy to repeat.

“We cannot expect every community to be able to rally together and find the resources and the will in the collective good to improve their water bodies,” Cwiertny said. “We have to ask ourselves why we have so many people who are impaired in the first place, and not just try to make these marginal improvements on the periphery of our farming system.”

Cwiertny said there are solutions. He mentions the University of Iowa, which operates a statewide monitoring network that provides real-time water quality data, but a more robust system requires more investment and of commitment.

“We need this to happen statewide and at a much faster rate, if we are going to try to bring about the meaningful change in water quality that I think the majority of Iowans really hope these days,” Cwiertny said.

Meanwhile, in Jackson County, farmers who share their namesake with this creek have performed a rare tangible act of conservation. A waterway on a list of nearly 800 deficiencies in the state.

Daniel Wheaton of the Midwest Newsroom analyzed the data for this report.