This past week, April 28 through May 4, was designated as Soil and Water Conservation Week in Iowa. This year the week was coordinated with national Stewardship Week sponsored by the National Association of Conservation Districts. The Stewardship Week theme was "Life in the Soil: Dig Deeper” and is designed to focus the nation’s attention on the importance of stewardship of our natural resources.
The severe erosion during the “Dust Bowl” years of the 1930s brought about the first efforts to prevent soil erosion, which also helped protect water resources. Iowa passed a law in 1939 establishing a state agency and the means for soil and water conservation districts to organize. This legislation declared it the policy of the State of Iowa to preserve soil and water; protect the state’s tax base; and promote health, safety and public welfare of people of Iowa.
In every county in Iowa, the local Soil and Water Conservation District offices with state and federal staff administer voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs to landowners and operators. Five locally elected Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners oversee programs. Since the system’s inception in the 1930s, what these programs are and their effectiveness on the landscape has evolved.
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Almost all of the early work to curb soil erosion in Iowa was done using structures such as terraces, dams, grassed waterways, and drainage ditches. Over time, the emphasis shifted to farming practices such as contour farming, reduced tillage, contour strips, the Conservation Reserve Program to take highly erodible land out of production, and buffer strips to protect our streams and rivers. Now the priority has shifted logically to the latest science concerning “soil health."
If landowners would concentrate on practices that encourage healthy soil, many of the erosion, water quality, land degradation, and even profitability issues faced by today’s producers would be greatly reduced. A healthy soil is protected from surface erosion by crop residue or a cover crop, has a porous structure which allows more water infiltration, and has a diverse and vibrant soil microbiology that digests plant materials quickly while drastically reducing the need for commercial fertilizers and herbicides. To move away from degraded soil and toward healthy soils, producers need to drastically reduce or eliminate tillage operations that destroy soil structure and microbiology as well as strive to keep a living root in the soil for as much of the year as possible. The roots from cover crops help keep the soil biology alive and thriving during the six months of the year when crops are not growing.
We are reminded by Soil and Water Conservation Week and various Earth Day activities that we all can have an effect on our environment through small changes we make in our activities such as recycling, reusing, and reducing purchases of items that cause harm to our fragile ecosystem. Agricultural operations are the leading cause of sediment and nutrient pollution in our streams and rivers, and in the degradation of our valuable soil resources. Inexpensive changes to our farming practices could make a positive effect on the health of our soils and our local environment; best of all, not cost nearly as much as the structures we built in the past to keep our soil in place.
For more information on soil health and other conservation programs please visit our website at www.cerrogordoswcd.org or contact the Cerro Gordo Soil and Water Conservation District office at 641-424-4452.