Iowa Watershed Approach consults farmers, seeks volunteers

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Storm Lake Pilot Tribune 12/10/2018 — The Iowa Watershed Approach Program is conferring with farmers and landowners, attempting to gather enough land to make conservation initiatives viable with about $2.5 million in grant money.

With the highest nitrate concentration of any stream of its size in North America, the North Raccoon River Watershed is the target of environmental initiatives designed to reduce flooding, soil loss and the flow of nutrients out of fields.

Landowners in the watershed may be eligible to receive up to 90 percent cost-sharing assistance.

“These will be competitive,” said departing Buena Vista County Supervisor Dale Arends. “There is only about $2.6 million available, and it’ll take three years to spend it.” It has already taken the
project about two years to get to this point.

A major part of the project’s goals include flood control and flood resilience. “Flood control is a bit of a new characterization of these projects as far as farmers are concerned,” Arends said.

Flood control goals include keeping water in detention for two to three days to drop the soil load and take nitrate out of the water. “We have to work together with our landowners and farmers,” said project coordinator Marius Agua. “They take all the risks.”

The project is still looking for volunteer landowners willing to commit to a project. After commitment through a non-binding agreement, those who volunteer for the program will be
ranked in order of desirability based on various factors. Landowners with higher proposed project costs will likely need to be willing to commit their land for a longer period of time to remain
competitive for grant funds.

After commitment, engineers will get involved to determine project costs. The 10 percent landowner share of the cost is locked in after the project estimate before it is let for bids, regardless of whether bids from construction companies come in higher or lower. Landowners can withdraw prior to construction, if they wish. Landowners will also be responsible for future maintenance costs.

“We’re not telling you what to do on your land,” said Alex Thornton, civil engineer for EOR, “we’re just here to work with you on what you want to do.”

EOR engineer Derek Lash emphasized the potential of the projects to farmers to maximize income from areas of land that aren’t farmable. “There’s a lot of neat things you can do with properties that are difficult to grow things on,” he said.

The initiative “will be a model for how we do things in the future,” said Marius Agua, project coordinator for the Iowa Watershed Approach. He said the goal is to get Iowans to work together to address factors that contribute to floods and nutrient flows with a critical stakeholder in the environmental protection strategy. “A watershed approach is an approach that is based on connectedness,” he said. “This is something I would like to trickle down into our consciousness and mindset.”

The cooperation of farmers with other stakeholders in urban areas downstream represents a major part of the task at hand, as farmers have differences in perspective and priorities. Through this project, Agua says that landowners and farmers can do something to improve water quality that downstream communities can’t necessarily reciprocate. “Once we store water upstream, it doesn’t matter how much,” said Agua. “We’re addressing one of the critical problems in the watershed, and that’s flooding of the next downstream community.” From here to Des Moines, about 90 members in counties, cities and conservation districts are all watching what happens in the counties bordering the North Raccoon, Arends said.

 

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