What can we all do?
Unfortunately, spring 2019 is another season where excessive rainfall has caused considerable planting delays and massive soil loss here in North Iowa. This soil loss has economic and environmental impact, here and downstream where water and silt from our fields finally arrives. A drive through the countryside reveals tons of soil that has eroded off the slopes and fanned out on lower ground or, worse yet, left the fields as dissolved sheet erosion. Iowa, as a whole, has lost more than half of its topsoil in the past 150 years; and what remains is soil inherently less productive, no matter how many inputs we apply to it.
The conventional tillage practices used on too many acres in our area has, and continues to, degrade the soil so much that its ability to absorb rainfall is greatly reduced. Combine lack of absorbed rainfall with a lack of ground cover, grassed waterways, and other conservation practices and you get what is so obvious in many fields: ephemeral gullies, exposed subsoil on hilltops, and prime Iowa farmland filling the ditches and floating downstream in our creeks and rivers. If you are a landowner, this situation will hit you directly in the wallet in the coming years and hopefully move you to be more thoughtful in your selection of a tenant and farming practices.
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Field runoff and eroded soil are a big contributor to the problems experienced downstream in a watershed, but so are fertilizers, pesticides, and trash. A surprising amount of these originate in our urban areas. Many residents in our cities and towns forget that the storm drain at the end of the street is a direct route to our creeks and rivers. This water is not treated, cleaned, or even strained; whatever is in the gutter is deposited into our rivers.
Lawn pesticides and fertilizers, which are routinely over-applied, wash off lawns and down the storm drains when water runs off our yards. All the trash, lawn clippings, and oil and gasoline that leaks from our vehicles onto the streets and parking lots is all washed into the storm drains. The global issue of plastics in our oceans begins at our homes. Monumental problems are solved through small actions; we all have a stake in the quality of our water. Water quantity and quality problems at the Gulf of Mexico are reduced by treating one field at a time and one lawn at a time with conservation measures here in the upper reaches of the Mississippi watershed. The great Pacific garbage patch is reduced by keeping soda bottles out of the gutters in our cities and towns.
Farmland owners can make real improvements to the quantity and quality of the water by adopting simple soil health practices and by requiring tenants to do so. Developing and implementing a conservation lease that specifies how the land will be farmed is a first step. Simply by leaving the land covered with last season’s plant residues or by planting a cover crop greatly reduces soil loss. Soil health practices improve the soil’s ability to absorb rainfall, therefore reducing runoff. Urban residents who recycle, reduce lawn pesticide and fertilizer applications, and keep trash and organics off hard surfaces improve water quality. Everyone can do something to preserve the quality of our water.
For more information on programs available to help please visit: cerrogordoswcd.org or contact the Cerro Gordo Soil and Water Conservation District at (641)424-4452.