Iowa View: Water improvements are Occurring in Iowa

By Darcy Maulsby
Article originally appeared in the Des Moines Register

When I was a kid, it was fun to take a break from farm chores and go to Lake View, where my brother and I swam in Black Hawk Lake before my family enjoyed a picnic lunch.

It wasn't so much fun, however, as the lake's water quality deteriorated. Notices were issued periodically that Black Hawk Lake was unfit for swimming.

All this is changing, however, as farmers and town residents work together through the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project.

I'm thrilled to see this, not only as someone who still enjoys picnicking, stand up paddleboarding, riding my bike and walking my dog at Black Hawk Lake, but as a member of a local farm family who takes conservation seriously.

Since the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project was implemented in January 2012, hundreds of tons of sediment and thousands of pounds of phosphorus have been prevented from entering Black Hawk Lake.

These conservation efforts may seem invisible, but they are widespread when you know where to look:

• Livestock nutrient management. I recently met a cattle producer in the Black Hawk Lake watershed who installed a 13.5 million-gallon manure containment basin to prevent runoff. The system, which can accommodate up to 4,000 head of cattle, includes settling basins to separate manure solids from liquids. The solids are composted, while the liquids are applied to crops through a center-pivot irrigation system.

In 2013, the farm generated 6,400 tons of compost — the equivalent of 18,000 tons of raw manure. This compost is similar to a light, fluffy potting soil and is applied to fields. Thanks to the farm's manure containment system, 40,000 pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are being kept out of the Raccoon River.

• Conservation farming. Some farmers in the Black Hawk Lake watershed have used no-till practices for years, along with maintaining land in the Conservation Reserve Program. These stewards of the land know you've got to hold soil in place to keep nutrients in place. We do this on our Calhoun County farm with conservation tillage and grass waterways, while my neighbors use buffer strips, cover crops and more.

• CREP wetland. An Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland on a 160-acre farm south of Lake View is protecting water quality in Black Hawk Lake. T.J. Lynn, coordinator of the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project, estimates this wetland will stop approximately 60 tons of sediment and 130 pounds of phosphorus from entering the lake.

• Stream bank stabilization. To stop sediment loss along Carnarvon Creek in the Black Hawk Lake watershed, landowners have invested in 5,345 feet of stream bank stabilization, complete with rocks, native grasses and wildflowers. This system is expected save 700 tons of sediment from entering Black Hawk Lake, which equates to about 1,500 pounds of phosphorus.

I see similar conservation practices being mirrored in my area. Even better, farmers aren't the only ones getting involved. In Lake View, residents are encouraged to use phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer. They also planted more than 160 wetland plants in a new bioretention cell near Crescent Beach to catch storm water and help prevent sediment and nutrients from washing into Black Hawk Lake.

It's encouraging to see partnerships flourish between rural and city residents, especially at Black Hawk Lake, a 922-acre local treasure that generates an annual economic impact of nearly $19 million for the area.

While there's always room for improvement, progress is clear. Goals to reduce sediment and phosphorus in the lake have been achieved in the first 2½ years, ahead of the four-year schedule in phase one of the 30-year project. That's great news to Black Hawk Lake Protective Association President Don Derner, who told me he's extremely pleased with these water quality improvements.

Maybe this isn't hidden conversation after all. Around here, it's easy to see how farmers and their nonfarm neighbors are implementing practical solutions to protect Iowa's precious natural resources. 

DARCY MAULSBY farms between Lake City and Yetter in Calhoun County, where her family raises corn and soybeans. Contact:

Article originally in the Des Moines Register