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Midwest watersheds farmers are warming to conservation

Indiana Correspondent

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Nearly $145,000 in cost-share funds were spent on conservation projects in portions of the St. Joseph River and Maumee River watersheds in 2015.
Farmers and landowners living in sections designated as the most critical areas were able to apply for cost-share money to install certain conservation practices.
Eligible projects included cover crops, stream buffers, filter strips and waste storage facilities.
In the Upper St. Joseph River watershed, $54,675 was disbursed for 31 projects.
Of those, 17 were for shoreline stabilization along 1,005 feet of Clear Lake in Steuben County, Ind., said Sharon Partridge, watershed program manager for the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
Seven farmers installed cover crops on 1,310 acres and another made an equipment modification. Three participants installed four rain barrels and three others put in native plants along 90 feet of Clear Lake’s shoreline, she said.
“There are quite a few lakes in the Upper St. Joseph watershed and we received a lot of input from the lakes community,” Partridge explained. “We asked them what was important to them. It’s so unusual for lakes projects to qualify for cost-share (dollars).”
Almost $90,000 was spent on cost-share projects in the Upper Maumee River watershed.
A report detailing how the money was distributed wasn’t available by press time, but Partridge said most of the funds in the watershed went to cover crops, hay planting and equipment modification.
The lists of eligible cost-share programs were created after management plans for both watersheds were completed. The plans describe problems found in each watershed, plus potential causes and solutions.
Making people who live in critical areas aware of the cost-share programs “is an educational process,” she noted.
“We’re trying to reach an audience. We were all over the place (in the watersheds) trying to reach and educate people.
“I think that people are becoming more educated. We’re trying to take a science-based approach to conservation. That seems the most logical way to get the information to our stakeholders.
“The critical areas tell us where we need to begin,” Partridge continued. “People who live in these critical areas should go into their local SWCD office. I don’t know if they realize they’re in a Priority One critical area.”
The Upper St. Joseph River watershed is in Hillsdale and Branch counties in Michigan, Williams County, Ohio, and DeKalb and Steuben counties in Indiana. The Upper Maumee River watershed includes parts of Allen and DeKalb counties in Indiana and Defiance and Paulding in Ohio.
Agriculture – row crops and hay/pasture – is the largest land use in both watersheds, with 78 percent in the Upper Maumee and 68 percent in the Upper St. Joseph.
“Some farmers may ask ‘why do we have to do this?’” said Dan Easterday, chair of the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative and a dairy farmer in Hillsdale County.
“But there’s an equal amount that embrace it. Soil health is a really hot topic right now. And now that the prices of commodities are down, you have to get a good yield to justify what you’re doing.”
Testing in the Upper St. Joseph River watershed found the biggest water quality problems were nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and turbidity.
“All of these pollutants can discharge from faulty septic systems, barnyard or animal feeding operation runoff or improper application of manure on cropland,” according to the watershed’s management plan. “However, high nutrient and turbidity levels can also come directly from row crop fields either through surface runoff or tiled discharge.”
The Upper Maumee River watershed management plan said levels of phosphorus, E. coli, turbidity and dissolved oxygen were found to be higher than target goals at some sampling sites in the watershed.