After years of work on the land to reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients reaching Farmers Creek in Jackson County, the stream is a candidate for de-listing from Iowa’s impaired waters list, and the effort has been recognized as a water quality success story by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This tributary to the Maquoketa River, which winds through rolling farmland and past picturesque bluffs, had landed on the impaired waters list in the early 2000s, after two significant fish kills and a noted decline in the health of aquatic life living in the creek, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR.)
Water sampling found that excess nutrients and sediment washing in from the watershed—in this case, the almost 31,000 acres of land that drains to the creek—were the top concerns for its health. Roughly 14,000 tons of sediment, largely from the highly erodible farmland surrounding it, was washing into the creek every year—enough to fill 1,000 dump truck loads. Additional sampling found low numbers of fish, insects, snails, mussels, crayfish and other wildlife that live in the creek, indicating a biological impairment of the stream.
“Biological impairments are difficult to address because there are so many factors that contribute,” said DNR biologist Jen Kurth. “To get the stream to the point of recovery and de-listment is a real achievement.”
To address these concerns, the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District launched a watershed improvement project in 2005, working with farmers and landowners to make changes on the land to improve water quality. This five-year project helped place conservation practices on the land, like stream bank protection, grassed waterways, sediment basins and more, reducing sediment reaching the stream by 40 percent. Since the end of the project, local farmers and landowners have upheld the culture of conservation by maintaining these practices and adding new ones.
“The watershed project was successful because funding was available for direct outreach, which was used to build strong producer support,” said Michelle Turner, who led the effort locally. “Landowners saw the results of their efforts quantified, and there was satisfaction in knowing they had helped improve water quality.”
The reduction in sediment also improved the habitat in Farmers Creek for fish and other aquatic life. Sampling has noted a greater diversity of fish and invertebrate species, as well as increases in species that are sensitive to pollution and habitat disturbances. Based on these improvements, Farmers Creek is now a candidate for removal from the state’s impaired waters list.
Additional partners and funding sources involved in the Farmers Creek project include the Iowa DNR through U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water Act section 319 grants, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and Iowa Resource Enhancement Assistance Program funds.
To learn more about Farmers Creek and its success story, visit here.