Turkey River Watershed open house brings awareness to issues

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Ross Evelsizer, natural resources projects director at Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development, discusses soil erosion, water quality and flooding issues within the Turkey River Watershed with those who attended a Turkey River Watershed Management Authority open house at Osborne. Attendees were welcome to speak with Evelsizer and share their concerns and stories while looking toward solutions. Input gathered from the open house, which was one of three, will be used to “better serve residents and landowners in the watershed,” Evelsizer said.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The Turkey River Watershed Management Authority (TRWMA), in collaboration with Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) and funded through the University of Iowa, recently held a series of workshops in the area, including an open house style event at the Osborne Nature Center near Elkader. 


The workshops were not only educational, but an opportunity for the public to provide feedback, share stories and express concerns about the watershed—namely water quality, soil loss, fishing and flooding—and how best to either solve or mitigate those issues. 


“We’re using the information to better serve residents and landowners in the watershed. We also will use the information to hopefully secure additional future funding to support efforts to create a watershed community in the Turkey River Watershed,” said RC&D Natural Resources Projects Director Ross Evelsizer. 


The watershed comprises eight counties, including Clayton, where 33.18 percent of the watershed covers over 359,000 acres of land. Problems surrounding the watershed, such as those listed above, will impact the county as a whole. Since its inception in 2012, the TRWMA has devoted countless resources to combating problems, and it outlined a long-term vision in its 2015 Watershed Resiliency Plan. 


Evelsizer said the state is losing more than 130 million tons of topsoil annually, as it floats down the rivers and eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a study done by the University of Massachusetts, the Midwest has lost 57.6 billion metric tons of topsoil over the last 160 years. 


What makes this a growing concern is the fact it leads to the degrading of soil quality, meaning that, over the long term, it’s not as productive. Lowering crop yields likely leads to lost revenue. 


But this problem is not without solutions, including no-till farming and planting more cover crops such as small grains, legumes, brassicas and other plants. According to the Watershed Resiliency Plan, this has shown an ability to improve soil health, build topsoil, increase infiltration, protect soil and improve water quality. Additionally, these practices have been shown to reduce chemical input costs, improve farm resiliency, boost yields, increase forage availability and improve wildlife habitat. 


On this issue, open house attendee Larry Stone voiced concerns, specifically about the low number of cover crops within the watershed. Stone, who has lived in Clayton County since 1974, said, over that time, there has been a “tremendous loss” in rotational farming which would minimize the soil issue. Instead, there has been a rise in row crops, something Stone believes there are “too many” of, which leads to more erosion. 


“We need more cover crops,” Stone said succinctly. 


According to Evelsizer, spurring the growth of cover crops has been on the agenda since 2015. Over that time, there has been an increase in cover crops throughout the state from somewhere around zero percent to 2 percent currently, which is around one to two million acres. There is no data on whether or not that has decreased soil erosion. 


In terms of flooding, perhaps nothing stands out to Elkader residents more than the events of 2008. According to Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert, after the 2008 flood, “the city had millions of dollars of damage to public infrastructure—re-bore a waterline, re-bore a sewer line, relocate fire station, rebuild the wall behind the businesses on North Main Street, rebuild the patio under Keystone Park and debris cleanup all over.”


While Cowsert did not have data on the cost of the flood, the resiliency plan included some figures. According to those numbers, the devastation cost the city several million dollars, including the $1.8 million which was invested to repair damaged infrastructure, water and sewer lines and the sewer lift station. Added to that was the $1.2 million spent to replace the fire station, the $2.2 million to buy out flooded properties and the $2 million in damages caused to 28 of the town’s businesses. 


Not to be overlooked was the $200,000 spent after the 2014 flood. 


One resident who attended the open house, Rick Whittle, expressed concern over the water runoff, which has a tendency to lead to flooding, erosion and property damage. This has prompted Whittle to plant trees, shrubs and flowers on his land. 


“Everything helps,” he said. “If everybody did something, there would be less of an impact.”


As for water quality, at the top of the list for the TRWMA is reducing excess nitrogen from certain fertilizers popular for growing corn. While it is highly effective, it can also become a water pollutant, not just in rivers, lakes and streams, but in drinking water as well. 


Coupled with nitrogen is phosphorous, which is also associated with fertilizers, but can come from wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems and commercial industry. The main problem with phosphorus is that even slight increases can lead to an overproduction of algae and aquatic plant growth, depleting dissolved oxygen in water systems, which has an impact on fish life. 


This segues into another problem facing the watershed, which was mentioned at the open house: the decline in fishing, especially trout. A Post-it note left on one of the event storyboards alluded to this fact, stating, “I see the tributary streams deteriorating more and more every year. The streams where I fish are drying up due to fill from runoff and are being choked with algae and plant bloom due to chemical contamination.” 


When it comes to nutrient loss, Evelsizer noted that, over the last 20 years, nutrient loss has increased a stunning 73 percent. That is faster than it can be mitigated, but efforts are being made, such as edge of field buffers, planting cover crops, improved drainage practices including modifying drainage systems and operations, woodchip bioreactors and modifications to drainage ditch systems and conservation tillage. 


In asking people to make these changes, Evelsizer cited Chesapeake Bay as a success story in converting to cover crops, especially to mitigate the majority of the problems associated with the watershed. 


According to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, “pollution controls put in place between 2009 and 2019 are estimated to have lowered overall nitrogen loads 11 percent, phosphorus loads 10 percent and sediment loads 4 percent.” 


However, it should be noted that, according to the 2022 State of the Bay Blueprint, “States are not on track to reduce pollution to the levels needed for a healthy bay, or implement the practices necessary to achieve them by the 2025 deadline.” 


Jenna Pollock, executive director of the Clayton County Conservation Board, commented that Big Springs Fishery saw a decline as a result of the flooding. She expressed a concern about “disconnected citizens,” who come together during flooding and other large events, but it’s the little things or the unseen, such as soil erosion, that is the larger problem and actually leads to the dramatic flooding. 


One of the reasons this is important for Evelsizer is the preservation of communities, particularly rural communities where people know their neighbors and there is more of a connection to the place and what happens. Rural communities, unlike others, are often times a “reflection of the people living there.” 


While Evelsizer sees the “uphill battle” facing the TRWMA, he’s confident that, once people are informed and become aware of the circumstances, they will coalesce around the problem and take steps to solve it. 


Cowsert hopes events such as the open house draw attention to the watershed and promote conservation efforts. 


“Long term, we hope it will reduce the impact of flooding and improve water quality. Short term is keeping the idea of working together as a region in everyone’s mind. We are all in this together, but because Elkader is near the end of the watershed, we experience everything that happens upstream from us,” she said. 


It might even help people remember the “forgotten the history of the landscape,” Gary Siegwarth said while walking through the open house.

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