A Culture of Conservation: We All Have a Place in the Watershed
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A Culture of Conservation: We All Have a Place in the Watershed

January 8, 2020


No matter where you are, you are standing in a watershed. Our homes, work, where we grow our food and
where we play, all exist in watersheds. A watershed is an area of land that
drains to a common point such as a lake, river, or marsh. Watersheds
can range in size from a few acres to thousands of square miles. The
Continental United States is divided into 18 major drainage basins. For instance, the Mississippi River Basin is very large and is composed of other
smaller basins that in turn include thousands of
still smaller watersheds. The Upper Midwest states including Iowa
ultimately drain into the Mississippi. More than 80% of the land in
Iowa is managed for agriculture. Iowa ranks
1 and 2 in sources of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
in water produce harmful algal blooms. These blooms can produce dead zones in
water bodies where dissolved oxygen levels are so low
that most aquatic life cannot survive. This condition is referred to as hypoxia, a growing problem found in the
Gulf of Mexico. Levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are not only problems in
the Gulf. They are a problem here in Iowa. Des
Moines Water Works has one of the largest nitrate removing systems in the
world. Our watersheds provide water for
drinking, agriculture production, irrigation, and
industry. Lakes and Streams are settings for
outdoor activities and recreation. Healthy watersheds provide food and
shelter for a diversity of plants and animals. The best way to protect our vital
natural resources is to understand and manage them on a
watershed basis. For instance, the Heartland Water Coordination Initiative partners the
land-grant universities in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri with the
USDA and the EPA, to increase the capacity of local stakeholders to better address
regional water quality concerns. Projects like
Heartland recognize that human activities and
natural events within one watershed affect the whole
water system. In the past, many water quality problems were traced
to the most obvious cause, point source pollution, pollution that
comes from a specific location such as a pipe or disposal site. Water
quality problems from non-point sources are more diffuse and difficult to
control. Non-point source pollution can be high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, high bacteria levels, or from failing
septic systems, parking lots, construction sites, irrigation and drainage systems, even
automobile exhaust. Non-point source pollutants are in the water that runs off
livestock paddocks, crop, and forest lands. These pollutants
evaporate into the atmosphere and return to earth with rain and snow. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources
has teamed with local volunteers to monitor streams and rivers throughout
the state. Consistent monitoring will identify any
problems. But the origin of these pollutants often
is hard to trace, difficult to measure, and result from a
variety of human and animal activities combined with natural events, such as precipitation and drought.
Partnerships among all who live, work, and play in a watershed can help identify concerns, educate, and encourage action. Lake Darling in Washington County, Iowa is a cleaner
lake as a result of the hard work of many landowners, groups, and agencies. Since 2001, over 100 targeted conservation projects have reduced the sediment going into
the lake by 3500 tons per year. Put 3500 tons of soil in dump trucks and you’d have a line of
trucks more than a mile long. Effective watershed management focuses
on preventing pollution. This is easier and cheaper than trying
to clean up a lake or a stream after it has become polluted. There are many innovative grassroots
activities to protect water and other natural resources in the Midwest. However, more work is needed. Successful
projects offer lessons on how to make our watersheds healthier. Know the flow of the water. How large is your watershed? Where does it flow and drain? What are the natural boundaries? Slow the flow
of water. The areas nearest lakes, rivers, and
streams have the biggest effects on water quality. A natural ecological system contains grass and tree filters, buffer
strips, ponds, wetlands, and riparian areas, providing wildlife habitat that absorbs excess nutrients and ties up sediment
to naturally cleanse the water. Wetlands can also reduce heavy peak
flows of water, reducing flooding. Many aquatic organisms
and wildlife species rely on wetlands for rearing their young, for food, and for
shelter. Understand your watershed usage. What are
the land uses and water needs of cities and industries? What are the farm uses? Are there places
used for fishing, swimming, hunting, boating, or bird
watching? Know that land uses and management change over time. Economic or social choices also have
environmental impacts. Because we all have a place in a
watershed, we have different expectations for use
and protection, which can lead to conflicts over issues
such as livestock manure disposal, new housing, business expansion, pesticide
application, and varying types of conservation practices.
Know your neighbors. Encourage them to learn with you about
your watershed. Everyone, not just landowners, benefit
from healthy watersheds. Be willing to try new practices and new
ways of managing land. Together we can build a culture of
conservation through shared beliefs, experiences, and the science of watershed ecology. Our
watersheds are dynamic and unique places. They are
complex webs of natural resources. Soil, water, air, plants, animals, and people; all living organisms
have a place in the watershed. It is our responsibility to secure its ecological and economic health for
all generations.

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