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Creating clear solutions

By Staff | Jun 23, 2014

During a recent conservation tour, Seth Smith, right, explained how his family’s 13.5 million gallon, clay-lined containment basin helps with nutrient management at his Sac County cattle operation. Nutrients are applied to the land through a center-pivot irrigation system, and solids are composted before they are applied to the fields.

LAKE VIEW – In the 14 years Don Derner has lived in Lake View, he has never been able to see the bottom of Black Hawk Lake, other than a few weeks when the ice goes out early in the spring. All that has changed, however, now that carp have been removed from the lake, and more farmers are participating in the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project.

“The water is so much better, and we’re really pleased with everything that has happened in a short time,” said Derner, president of the Black Hawk Lake Protective Association.

It’s a dramatic switch from previous years, when deteriorating water quality meant that residents like Derner would be notified periodically that Black Hawk Lake was unfit for swimming. Those notices are becoming a thing of the past, thanks to the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Management Plan. Since 2011, the plan has focused on achieving higher water quality standards to protect the 922-acre Black Hawk Lake, a popular destination for boating, waterskiing, swimming, fishing and picnicking.

Through a combination of conservation practices throughout the watershed, where 75 percent of the area includes corn and soybean production, hundreds of tons of sediment and thousands of pounds of phosphorus have been prevented from entering Black Hawk Lake in recent years. “This is a win-win for everyone,” said T.J. Lynn, coordinator of the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project, which is committed to helping the lake, in harmony with its watershed, create a healthy, safe, economically sustainable, visually appealing resource for residents and visitors.

That’s important to Mark Segebart, an Iowa senator from Vail who has enjoyed coming to Black Hawk Lake for years. “It used to be that couldn’t see your hand a foot below the water. With these water quality efforts, things have come a long way.”

Putting conservation on the ground

Farmers and landowners have been leading the change, said Lynn, who helped coordinate a tour for the media and general public on June 10 around Sac County to show:

  • Livestock nutrient management. Seth Smith, a Sac County cattle producer, installed a13.5-million-gallon, clay-lined manure containment basin in 2011 to prevent runoff. The system, which cost about a quarter of a million dollars, can accommodate up to 4,000 head of cattle. The feedlot includes settling basins in cattle pens to separate manure solids from liquids. The solids are composted, while the liquids are applied 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. “We periodically turn the pile until the compost is light and fluffy like potting soil,” said Smith, who applies the compost at a rate of 4 to 5 tons per acre and noted that there is little to no odor. “There have also been a lot of benefits we didn’t think we’d see from the containment basin,” added Smith, who uses ridge-till farming and cover crops to protect soil quality. In 2013’s drought conditions, the center-pivot irrigation system gave Smith’s cornfields a 30-bushel-per-acre yield boost. “We’re also keeping 40,000 pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium out of the river, which is important to us,” said Smith, who follows strict nutrient management plans and maintains a variety of permits, from the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Confinement Site Manure Applicator Certification from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
  • No-till farming. Dave Irwin, who farms 450 acres and raises turkeys near Sac City, has been no-tilling since 1992 to protect soil and water quality. “My yields with no-till are as good as other tillage systems, plus I’ve cut my fuel and equipment costs dramatically,” said Irwin, who also maintains 17 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land around a nearby creek. “You’ve got to hold the soil in place to keep the nutrients in place. No-till makes this happen.”
  • CREP wetland. An Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program wetland located on a 160-acre farm south of Lake View also helps protect water quality in Black Hawk Lake. “We estimate that this will stop approximately 60 tons of sediment and 130 pounds of phosphorus from getting into the lake,” Lynn said.
  • Streambank stabilization. To stop sediment loss along Carnavon Creek in the Black Hawk Lake watershed, landowners have invested in streambank stabilization across an area measuring 5,345 feet. After durable landscape fabric was placed on the streambank slopes, rock in a variety of sizes was packed on top. The rock came from concrete that was broken up from an old cattle lot in the area, said Lynn, who noted that this helped cut the cost in half. “This system saves 700 tons of sediment from getting in Black Hawk Lake, which equates to about 1,500 pounds of phosphorus,” added Lynn, who said the streambank stabilization areas will be seeded with native grasses and wildflowers.

Making progress

Along with conservation efforts on area farms, the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project is working with residents in Lake View to keep sediment and nutrients from washing into the lake. The group is focusing on bio-retention cells to help capture runoff from the streets and is encouraging residents to install rain gardens.

“We’re also promoting phosphorus-free fertilizer,” said Lynn, who noted that phosphorus is a primary concern at Black Hawk Lake, because it feeds unwanted algae and vegetation.

The Black Hawk Lake Watershed Project is an excellent example of the power of partnerships, said Jim Gillespie, director of the division of soil conservation at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

“These environmentally-sustainable solutions reflect the tradition of farmers working together. This Black Hawk Lake project also shows how voluntary efforts are contributing to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

Learn more

For more details on the Black Hawk Lake Water Quality Project, log onto www.blackhawklakewaterqualityproject.com, “like” the Black Hawk Lake Water Quality Project on Facebook, or go to @BlackHawkLakeWS on Twitter.

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