Soil – Agriculture’s Reservoir

Post submitted by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant for the Iowa Water Center

The soil is like a sponge that holds water so it is available when crops need it. Wetter soil at the surface prevents deeper infiltration and so water is lost as surface runoff. Not only this, but soil moisture is also a variable that influences the timing and amount of precipitation in a given area. This is due to the impact it has on the water cycle. This cycle circulates moisture from the ground through evaporation and plant transpiration to the atmosphere and back to the ground again through precipitation. Therefore, the amount of water stored in the soil can affect the amount of precipitation received during the growing season.

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Satellite imaging from the European Space Agency. The center figure depicts imaging derived from SMOS.

According to Hornbuckle (2014), “we enter each growing season ‘blind’ as to whether or not there will be enough soil moisture and precipitation to support productive crops.” If there were a way to document and record water storage in the soil besides field measurements, we would have a better ability to predict future weather patterns and therefore, make better field decisions. Satellite remote sensing tools such as the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) and NASA’s Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) can be used to take such measurements. Before these tools can be used to estimate water storage and improve weather and climate predictions, researchers must compare them to what is actually measured within the soil. This process of confirming accuracy of a tool is called validation.

A project led by Dr. Brian Hornbuckle, and funded by the Iowa Water Center in 2014, sought to improve and validate SMOS and SMAP in near-surface soil moisture observations of Iowa. Hornbuckle used a network of soil moisture measurements located in the South Fork Watershed as a standard to validate the accuracy of SMOS and SMAP. At each site, soil moisture and precipitation was measured.

Some of the results of this research project are presented in a 2015 article published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology.  Rondinelli et al. found that SMOS and the network of soil moisture measurements detect different layers of the soil. SMOS takes measurements of the soil surface while the network observes a deeper level of soil. These results will allow scientists to better evaluate the accuracy of measurements from SMOS and SMAP and ultimately enhance our understanding of the water content of the soil surface.  As noted earlier, it is this layer of the soil that determines how much precipitation is lost to surface runoff.

In a subsequent study published in 2016, Hornbuckle et al. published further results that indicate new ways of using SMOS. Researchers found that SMOS can be used to look at water in vegetation, as opposed to water in the soil.  Hence SMOS might be used in the future to observe the growth and development of crops, and perhaps estimate yield and the time of harvest as opposed to conducting field surveys from the ground. It also has the potential to measure estimates of the biomass produced during the growing season, which could be useful to reach bioenergy production goals.

Research like this demonstrates that a single tool can be used in multiple ways to better understand our landscape. Not only this, but preliminary studies of SMOS also show that it is important to verify the accuracy of tools before relying on them. Like all research, the work is not done to identify all the potential uses for SMOS and SMAP.  A new NASA grant, in partnership with the Iowa Flood Center, will help get researchers even closer to making satellite measurements a useful, scientific tool to understand water near the soil surface.

References

Hornbuckle, Brian K. “New Satellites for Soil Moisture: Good for Iowans!.” A Letter from the Soil & Water Conservation Club President (2014): 20.

Hornbuckle, Brian K. Jason C. Patton, Andy VanLoocke, Andrew E. Suyker, Matthew C. Roby, Victoria A. Walker, Eswar R Iyer, Daryl E. Herzmann, and Erik A. Endacott. 2016. SMOS optical thickness changes in response to the growth and development of crops, crop management, and weather. Remote Sensing Environment (180) 320-333.

Rondinelli, Wesley J., Brian K. Hornbuckle, Jason C. Patton, Michael H. Cosh, Victoria A. Walker, Benjamin D. Carr, Sally D. Logsdon. 2015. Different Rates of Soil Drying after Rainfall Are Observed by the SMOS Satellite and the South Fork in situ Soil Moisture Network. Journal of Hydrometeorology. April 2015.

 

Planning for Watershed Success in Eastern Iowa

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Attendees of the Indian Creek Watershed open house discussing the map of the watershed. Photo from the Indian Creek Watershed Facebook page.

Post edited by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

This week, we chatted with Jennifer Fencl, the Solid Waste & Environmental Services Director at The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG). Fencl works to bring eastern Iowa stakeholders together to better manage their natural resources and to create a long-term investment in their community. Below are a few highlights from our conversation that outlines some of the behind-the-scenes work in watershed planning.

Please describe your work in watershed management in Iowa.

The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG) became involved in watershed management in 2011 when the City of Marion requested assistance in applying for Watershed Management Authority Formation grant funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) for the Indian Creek watershed. The Indian Creek Watershed Management Authority (ICWMA) was formed under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in August 2012 with 6 of the 7 eligible jurisdictions agreeing to plan for improvements on a watershed level. Funds were made available in 2013 by the IEDA to complete watershed management plans to address flood risk mitigation and water quality. The ICWMA received one of the three planning grants and engaged in a multi-jurisdictional planning approach facilitated by ECICOG in partnership with several local, state, and federal agencies. The resulting Indian Creek Watershed Management Plan (ICWM Plan) identifies strategies and recommendations for stormwater management and water quality protection, including specific implementation activities and milestones. The ICWM Plan was completed and presented to the public in June 2015 and adopted by all six of the ICWMA members at policy maker meetings during July and August of 2015.

As the ICWMA Plan was wrapping up, the City of Coralville requested ECICOG’s assistance in forming a WMA for the Clear Creek watershed. In this case, Coralville was willing to sponsor the WMA formation and planning grant application services. The Clear Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) formed as a WMA under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in October 2015 with all 9 of the eligible jurisdictions joining. ECICOG secured DNR watershed planning funds early in 2016 and the CCWC is mid-way through their planning process. Fortunately, the Clear Creek watershed was one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project. The additional watershed planning funds from the HUD grant will add significantly to the resulting watershed plan.

In early 2016, the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority (MCWMA) was on its way to formally becoming a WMA and needed some help in completing the agreement filing, developing by-laws, and organizing the Board of Directors. ECICOG assisted the MCWMA in forming under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in June 2016 with 25 of the 65 eligible jurisdictions joining. The MCWMA is one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project.

What are the challenges and rewards in doing work with watershed management?

One challenge that became clear in the Indian Creek process was the disconnect between the watershed (technical) assessment and the local stakeholders. That gap must be bridged to develop meaningful, locally-based goals and implementation strategies.  For me, the reward is watching the interaction between perceived “enemies” (urban/rural; big city/suburb; ag producer/government type) and bringing skeptical people into the process to develop an actual plan… that they ultimately agree to.

What kinds of stakeholders are involved in developing a watershed management plan?

It is critical to include the local Soil and Water Conservation District, government representatives, and the landowners (both urban & rural, flood impacted if possible) in developing goals and strategies. I believe that it is also important to identify the ‘experts’ in your watershed, both locally and from state agencies, early on and have them provide input on what assessment activities and planning services are really needed from an outside consultant. There is a role for everyone to play.

What are the basic steps in putting together a watershed management plan?

Here is my road map:

  1. Invite participation
  2. Identify resource concerns
  3. Assemble experts
  4. Complete assessment work
  5. Present the assessment to a broad list of stakeholders (need good interpreters)
  6. Develop goals, define implementation strategies, and prioritize the strategies
  7. Compile the plan and present the plan for comment
  8. Shop the plan for formal adoption by policy making board/councils.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to develop a watershed plan for their community?

Run… kidding, sorta.  Seek help from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship basin coordinators first, and then gauge the interest of the other entities in the watershed. You need to find some champions to help smooth the way for local elected officials.

Daily Erosion Project goes International

This week Dr. Richard Cruse, Professor in Agronomy at Iowa State University and Director of the Iowa Water Center, was invited to speak at the Rendez-vous végétal 2017 in Quebec, Canada. He provided a presentation on the cost of soil erosion and introduced the Daily Erosion Project to an international audience of soil and water professionals.

Below is an article published in le Bulletin des agriculteurs, a publication on new agricultural technologies in Quebec.  The article is written by Nicolas Mesy, an agronomist and freelance reporter and photographer. Topics the article explores include soil loss in Iowa, the science behind the Daily Erosion Project, and how soil erosion assessments can be a tool in decision-making.

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Introducing the Iowa Watershed Approach

Post originally appeared on the Iowa Learning Farms website

Today’s guest post was provided by Adam Wilke ISU Extension and Outreach Water Specialist.

The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) is a new five-year project focused on addressing factors associated with flood disasters in the state of Iowa. The IWA project will also provide benefits of improved water quality by implementing conservation practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

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Assessing Cedar River flood waters, September 2016. Photo courtesy Brian Powers/DSM Register

The “HUD Project,” as it is commonly referred, was awarded $96.9 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Disaster Resilience Competition provided $1 billion to communities that have experienced recent significant natural disasters, including Iowa’s three flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations in 2013. Iowans remember the devastating floods of 2008 and 1993, and some are still working to repair damage from September 2016 flooding.

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Map of the Iowa Watershed Approach. Courtesy of Iowa Flood Center.

The IWA focuses on nine watersheds throughout the state, representing varying soil types, topographic regions, and land uses. These watersheds were prioritized as regions that have been most impacted and distressed from previous flood events and have unmet recovery needs. The IWA is a vision for both rural and urban resilience, and three cities (Storm Lake, Coralville, and Dubuque) are priority areas for the project.

Previous efforts to address flooding impacts were piloted through the Iowa Watersheds Project in five watersheds throughout the state in 2010. By 2016, over 65 constructed practices—such as ponds, wetlands, and terraces—have been completed.

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Road damage from Cedar River flood, June 2008. Courtesy Iowa Dept. of Transportation

The theme of year one is “The Iowa Watershed Approach: A Visions for Iowa’s Future Under Changing Hydrologic Conditions.” Climate science indicates that annual average precipitation in Iowa has trended upward over the last 100 years and extreme precipitation events (more than 1.25 inches per day) have increased throughout the state. University of Iowa research of 774 U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges found an upward trend in frequency of flooding throughout the Central U.S. over the past 50 years. This has contributed to crop loss and destruction of infrastructure, such as homes, roads, and bridges.

The IWA will work to achieve six specific outcomes:

  1. Reduce flood risk
  2. Improve water quality
  3. Increase flood resilience
  4. Engage stakeholders through collaboration and outreach/education
  5. Improve quality of life and health, especially for susceptible populations
  6. Develop a program that is scalable and replicable throughout the Midwest and the United States

The IWA focuses on innovative in-field and edge-of-field practices to reduce flood potential and decrease nutrient concentration in surface water. The practices include:

• Wetland Construction                              • Farm Ponds
• Storm Water Detention Basins              • Terraces
• Sediment Detention Basins                    • Floodplain Restoration
• Channel Bank Stabilization                    • Buffer Strips
• Saturated Buffers                                       • Perennial Cover
• Oxbow Restoration                                     • Bioreactors
• Prairie STRIPS

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Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach. 

The IWA project creates Watershed Management Authorities (WMA) and these organizations allow for a broad range of stakeholders—including scientists, state agencies, counties, municipalities, farmers, and citizens—to organize and work towards the common goals of flood reduction and water quality improvement. Some watersheds, such as the Middle Cedar, have established WMAs, while others are beginning the formation process.

Stream gauges will provide data for the Iowa Flood Center to conduct hydrological assessments in each watershed and allow researchers to assess risks associated with flooding and water quality, including developing and evaluating future scenarios to maximize results from project resources.

WMA will use these findings to best select eligible subwatersheds at the HUC 12 (Hydrologic Unit Code) scale and prioritize implementation of constructed projects. Stakeholder inputs, watershed plans, and hydrological assessments will guide the WMAs in selecting the most beneficial practices and appropriate locations.

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Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach.

This project combines the strengths and efforts of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and the Daily Erosion Project by the Iowa Water Center to achieve these goals. The IWA is a new way to think about the movement of water across the Iowa landscape. One of the most important pieces of completing such a large and complicated project is to ensure stakeholder engagement throughout the project. We look forward to hearing your questions, thoughts, and concerns as we all seek the common goal of reducing flood disaster and ensuring water quality for generations to come.

–Adam Wilke

Geographic Information Systems at Iowa State University

We “dig” the data…

Written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

Big data requires big software and big ideas. This can especially be  true when it comes to managing our water-related resources. Today, we have access to numerous data points about our soil and water that can assist in understanding current landscape conditions and to plan for the future. Information such as this is not useful unless it can be analyzed by the experts using software such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Recently, Inside Iowa State published a story regarding the geographic information systems support and research facility located on the Iowa State University campus. This facility provides a myriad of resources for teaching and tools related to using GIS for mapping and analyzing data. This facility not only trains students and provides extension services, but is also making an impact on “groundbreaking” research. Knowledge can be a powerful tool not only in enabling better policy and practices, but to inspire researchers to tackle innovative projects.

Work associated with the facility is The Daily Erosion Project. This is a research project housed within the Iowa Water Center and is driven by vast amounts of natural science information for better assessment of our soil. This research endeavor uses a multitude of data sources, including soil types, hill slopes, daily precipitation, and other data points to estimate soil movement and water runoff from the rolling hills of Iowa on a daily basis. All of this information is processed and transformed by a team of scientists and analysts to enable better decision-making on land uses in the Midwest. You can read more about it from Dr. Richard Cruse here.

What can the Daily Erosion Project be used for, you ask?

Output from the tool can provide an inventory of soil loss at the watershed level, assess the potential for water storage capacity in the soil, and be used to identify sensitive areas to target the use of conservation practices.  As the project acquires more information and interest by the public, it is expanding. Currently, the tool is growing to provide assessments in Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois.

Our landscapes are ever-changing. Because of this, it is energizing to see the tools and the talent at work through research facilities and solution-centered projects to tackle the critical problems we face in managing our soil and water resources.

 

Get to know the Rathbun Land and Water Alliance

Story submitted by Kathleen Chester, Rathbun Land and Water Alliance Outreach

 The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance

 The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance was established in 1997 to promote cooperation between public and private sectors in an effort to protect land and water resources in the Rathbun Lake Watershed.  The Rathbun Lake Watershed is located in the six southern Iowa Counties of Appanoose, Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe, and Wayne and covers 354,000 acres. Rathbun Lake is the primary water source for Rathbun Regional Water Association, which provides drinking water to 80,000 people in southern Iowa and northern Missouri.

The Alliance’s integrated approach resulted in the development of a water quality monitoring program and the completion of the Rathbun Lake Watershed Assessment and Management Plan in 2001. In 2003, the Alliance was one of only 20 watersheds in the nation to receive the EPA’s Targeted Watershed Initiative Grant. More than a dozen organizations and agencies at the local, state, and federal levels partnered with the Alliance to begin implementing best management practices in the Rathbun Lake Watershed. This generated a project which has come to be known as the Protect Rathbun Lake Project.

Project Highlights

Knowing where to install best management practices has been significant to the success of reducing contaminants delivered to Rathbun Lake. GIS technology was used to create a model that identifies priority land, which is land determined to have the greatest potential to deliver sediment and phosphorous to Rathbun Lake. Due to the size of the Rathbun Lake Watershed, it was divided into 61 more manageable sections called subwatersheds. The primary objective is to apply best management practices on priority land in targeted sub-watersheds.

The Protect Rathbun Lake Project was one of the first in Iowa to use the targeted approach. Protect Rathbun Lake Project staff work with landowners to install conservation practices in areas where priority land exists.

State Recognition

The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance has grown to be recognized as one of the more effective, locally-led watershed organizations in Iowa. In 2012, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad selected the Rathbun Lake Watershed as the location for the field level event as part of Iowa Soil and Water Conservation Week. The governor, lieutenant governor, and numerous state agency department heads traveled to the Rathbun Lake Watershed to hear firsthand from the landowners who participate in the Protect Rathbun Lake Project about what actions they take to protect Rathbun Lake.

Organization and Leadership

Alliance members have created a strong organization with leadership committed to the organization’s mission, which is to foster a voluntary approach driven by landowners, water users, and public and private organizations to protect and enhance land, water, and economic resources in the Rathbun region.

This partnership includes the following individuals, organizations, and agencies: Participating landowners in the Rathbun Lake Watershed; CoBank; Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Division of Soil Conservation; Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Iowa State University; Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board; Southern Iowa Development and Conservation Authority; US Army Corps of Engineers; US Environmental Protection Agency; USDA Farm Service Agency; USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Appanoose, Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe, and Wayne Soil and Water Conservation Districts; Appanoose, Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe, and Wayne Counties; Iowa Farm Bureau at the state and county levels; and Rathbun Regional Water  Association.

Project Goals

The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance’s primary goal is to reduce sediment and phosphorus delivery to Rathbun Lake and water bodies in the lake’s watershed. The goal is to treat 30,000 acres of priority land, which will reduce annual sediment and phosphorus delivery to Rathbun Lake by an estimated 90,000 tons of sediment and 360,000 pounds of phosphorus. Monitoring water quality is essential to evaluating the effectiveness of the installed conservation practices.

Technical and financial assistance provided by project partners has allowed landowners with identified priority land to take advantage of cost share opportunities. The state’s low interest loan program is also available to landowners to construct best management practices such as terraces, planting grass waterways, grade stabilization structures, and sediment control basins.

Results

Close to 600 landowners have worked with the Alliance to install practices in the Rathbun Lake Watershed. To date, these practices have prevented 49,484 tons of sediment and 213,204 pounds of phosphorous from being carried in runoff each year to Rathbun Lake.

 More than 1.5 million feet of terraces and more than 500 sediment basins and grade stabilization structures have been installed since 2004.

Financial Support

Since the Protect Rathbun Lake Project began in 2004, Alliance members and partners have provided significant financial and technical support for the organization’s efforts. Close to $31 million in financial support has been contributed for project activities in the Rathbun Lake Watershed. Specific mention should be made of the nearly $5 million invested in best management practices by landowners in the watershed to protect Rathbun Lake.

The support has enabled the Alliance to share the cost of installing best management practices with landowners in the watershed as well as carry out other important project activities. This support also allows two full time staff to coordinate the installation of best management practices by working with watershed landowners at the field level and one technician is stationed in the Chariton field office.

In addition to the installation of conservation practices, the support enabled the creation of a landowner recognition program and helped fund water quality monitoring and Rathbun Lake shoreline and wetland restoration.

Landowner Recognition and Outreach

Without the cooperation of the Rathbun Lake Watershed landowners, the installation of soil saving practices that protect Rathbun Lake would not be possible.  To recognize those who have shown exemplary stewardship in protecting Rathbun Lake, the Rathbun Lake Protector Program was developed. Each year, the Alliance invites the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in each of the watershed counties to nominate those who they believe have contributed to the protection of Rathbun Lake. Nominations were based on past efforts as well as present and planned actions to protect water quality.

These landowners are recognized at the Protect Rathbun Lake Annual Meeting held each fall. To date, more than 50 landowners have received this recognition. Each of these Rathbun Lake Protectors has had a sign installed on their farm recognizing them for their actions.  Additionally, plaques engraved with the names of these landowners are displayed in each Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Valuable Resources

Conservation activities carried out by the Alliance’s Protect Rathbun Lake Project protect Rathbun Lake which is a water source for not only drinking water but is also a valuable recreation resource. It is visited by more than one million visitors each year, is home to Honey Creek Resort State Park, and provides valuable habitat to fish and wildlife.

In partnership with the Protect Rathbun Lake Project, the Iowa DNR and US Army Corps of Engineers have invested resources in the restoration and protection of the shoreline at Rathbun Lake.  To date, this shoreline work has been completed at more than a dozen critical sites around Rathbun Lake. This work significantly reduces shoreline erosion at these sites, improves water quality, preserves important fish habitat, and protects recreational infrastructure.

Annual Meeting

Each fall at the Protect Rathbun Lake Annual Meeting, project staff provide an update of activities carried out during the past year. This event is regularly attended by 200 Rathbun Lake Watershed landowners. In the fall of 2016, the Rathbun Land and Water Alliance initiated the first Farm to Faucet Landowner Appreciation Event, which included a tour of the new Rathbun Regional Water Association’s water treatment facility.

To follow along with the Rathbun Lake Project, place presentation requests to the Rathbun Land and Water Alliance, and attend upcoming events, check out their website!

Farmers are Covering Iowa

Written by Shannon Moeller, Project Coordinator for the Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative is a new Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Water Quality Initiative project that will run through 2018. This project is through the Iowa Seed Association in collaboration with the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Corn Growers Association, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

This project seeks to increase the number of cover crops in seed corn production acres around the State of Iowa through outreach efforts and cost-share opportunities for growers. In the project’s first year, nine seed corn companies chose to partner with us in this effort and promote the use of cover crops among their growers. This resulted in cost-share for over 36,000 acres among 175 growers in 24 counties across Iowa.

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Seed corn production acres are a great location for cover crops for many reasons. Seed corn has a shorter growing season than commercial corn. Depending on the weather, which varies from year to year, harvest can start before Labor Day and is often finished before the end of September. During the summer growing season, there are many trips across the field with sprayers and detasslers. In July, every 5th row is typically mowed down because those are the “male rows” and are no longer needed after pollination. End rows are often taken out earlier than the rest of the field, as well. This can leave a seed corn field compacted and often with little residue after harvest, which is much less than for commercial corn fields.

Because the seed corn plants are shorter and there are gaps every few rows, aerial application and interseeding methods for cover crop use can be quite successful in seed corn acres. Sunlight is abundant, and so as long as there is a timely rain, those fields can be green with cover crops by the time the rest of the field is harvested. There’s also time to drill cover crops or to broadcast them with fall fertilizer after harvest. This is because seed corn harvest is often over at least a few days before commercial corn and soybean harvest begins.

I am currently travelling throughout Iowa to different counties and visiting with growers – many of whom are new to cover crops. With each stop, I am taking photos of cover crops at various growth stages in different areas. This is to capture the successes these growers are having in promoting their soil health and improving water quality at the same time.