Out in the Field in the Miller Creek Watershed
Throughout my time in Iowa, I would find myself at a field day or conference looking at a graph showing nitrate levels in water. Before volunteering with the Miller Creek Watershed Project, I saw this kind of graph as a series of data points along an undulating line without a concrete connection to the landscape. I drew conclusions about tillage and other land management practices, about weather, about the planting, growing, and harvest seasons, and how this all relates to water. I did not see how these data points, when taken together, tell a story about what is happening in a watershed.
I am a cultural anthropology doctoral student from University of South Carolina. One of my research goals is to understand how soil and water conservation work is occurring in Iowa agriculture. From August 2015 through September 2016, I lived and worked in Iowa with natural resources professionals and farmers to understand current efforts addressing nutrient reduction. To truly understand an issue, cultural anthropologists immerse themselves within a community to gain an insider perspective.
I served as an Earth Team Volunteer at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for roughly 7 months. During this time, I worked in their office, attended field days and meetings, helped collect water samples, and interviewed local farmers. Of all these, collecting water samples showed me what it takes to know a landscape.
One morning, Shane Wulf, the project coordinator for the Miller Creek Watershed, and I hopped into a big white USDA truck. A large Styrofoam box set between us held plastic bottles bearing letters and number indicating their site, and a clipboard for notes about each site. Sampling twenty odd sites takes about half a day, depending on the weather and the number of farmer friends you need to catch up with along the gravel roads. Starting in the morning will put you well past lunch time, and you still need to send off the refrigerated samples to the lab that same day.
It is also important to have appropriate, versatile clothing. I found out quickly my jeans, tennis shoes, and lack of a rain jacket were not going to cut it that cold, rainy day. Waterproof boots, layers, rain gear, and hats were all essential for the unpredictable storms and sunshine of Iowa.
Shane and I collected water from streams in the woods and under bridges, from tile lines following into creeks, and from bioreactor and saturated buffer control structures. Seeing Miller Creek for the first time felt a bit like meeting a local celebrity. I have heard so much about it, and here I was finally seeing it in person.
I hadn’t really ever thought about where tile lines or these other structures might be or how to get water from them. Some samples required long walks along corn and bean fields and into buffer strips. This walk could be fruitful (a flowing tile!) or disappointing (a tile line submerged or dry). Some were in ditches obscured by thickets of grass that also hid impressive holes waiting for unsuspecting feet. I had no idea how Shane could predict where some of these were or what we’d see at some of the tiles. As we drove, he would ask, “It’s number 16 next, right?” And he was right. The magic of spending enough time in a place revealed itself in his unfaltering knowledge of place.
I was officially initiated into the Miller Creek Watershed project when Shane handed me a plastic bottle and I slid down the embankment to perch unsteadily on the edge of a tile line. The trick with this tile line was picking it up slightly to let the water flow into the bottle while balancing on either side of it. The goal is to not fall into the creek. With some creative maneuvering, I managed to get my sample and climb back up the embankment without incident.
Spending time with watershed coordinators in Iowa showed me how complex the issue of water quality is. Many told me they liked having data that gave insight into the status of their watershed and into the efficacy of conservation practices like bioreactors and saturated buffers. Measurement was key to seeing how conservation was working out on the landscape.
The coordinators put in a lot of work; they collect data, match programs and services with landowner needs, and organize events. Each activity involves a lot of effort that, for many of us looking at a graph, signing off on paperwork, or eating a delicious meal at a field day, will never see.
Despite the complexity of the work and the issue, I admire how much the coordinators believe that water quality can improve in their watershed. They told me about feeling overwhelmed and disheartened sometimes, but that they could see the slow, but steady progress on a small scale. They told me about how building relationships between unlikely partners can be a creative and successful approach to conservation. I learned that conservation could have economic, social, and ecological benefits that start in and extend beyond the farm field.
During these walks out in the field, I found a kinship between myself as an anthropologist and watershed coordinators across Iowa. Our work is slow, on a small scale, and can be overwhelming and disheartening at times. Regardless, our work always begins and ends on the ground and with the people.