high water

The waters of the Skunk River encroach farmland. March, 2019.

MAHASKA COUNTY — A kickoff event for the Mahaska County South Skunk Watershed Project is planned for Sept. 18.

South Skunk Project Coordinator Bryce Lidtka said the public is welcome to attend. There will be free food and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig is slated to be present and speak.

“We’re not going to go super into the weed with a lot of information,” Lidtka said, “it’s going to be more of a door opener to continued conversation with individuals face to face. That’s the hope of the event. It should be fun.”

The kickoff is for a brand new watershed project undertaken in Mahaska County.

“It has specific initiatives that are tied both to a local, regional and state initiative,” Lidtka said. “It involves working with both farmers, producers, people in urban settings and retailers alike. So this kickoff is to bring as many people together to try to introduce this project and educate and get people excited about it.”

A watershed, Lidtka said, is basically any water that falls on the ground and flows into a creek or tributary or into a river.

The Mahaska County watershed project focuses on the South Skunk River and Cedar Creek.

“The South Skunk watershed is much bigger than Mahaska County, obviously, but we are focusing more on the boundary ends around Mahaska County,” Lidtka said. “We are part of what is called the Water Quality Initiative, which is a state initiative. There are other watersheds that kind of cover the South Skunk watershed outside of Mahaska County as well.”

The watershed project is important, Lidtka said. A lot of nutrients end up flowing into rivers and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, currently in the Gulf of Mexico is a dead zone – an area of low or no oxygen, and therefore no marine life – approximately 7,800 square miles in size.

This is an important deal because — there is a lot of importance to this. On a really, really big scale, a lot of our nutrient load and nutrient waste is flowing in our rivers down to the Gulf of Mexico. And there is what’s called the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re trying to prevent runoff going down there but it starts on a local scale, so on a little field basis,” he said. “So if we can reduce the amount of nutrient runoff into our streams and rivers then we’ll have cleaner water for us to drink; it’ll be less money for our municipal and rural water to spend on filtering out those nutrients and it’s just a safer environment for habitat within those watersheds and more enjoyable for everybody.”

Nitrates and phosphates are two very common nutrients that end up in water sources, Lidtka said, and are found naturally and are commonly used as fertilizers.

“We have very nutrient-rich soils in Iowa and one common thing is when we expose our soil through tillage to plant our crops, then that soil is more susceptible to erosion. That’s a common way that phosphates get caught into our water sources is through that kind of erosion,” he said. “Nitrates, they’re more water soluble so they can basically flow with water into our water sources, so they’re a little more tricky to catch, which is kind of where our focus lies with edge of field practices.”

Lidtka said there are basic ways people can do their part in protecting the watersheds.

“This is where the education piece comes in that I am trying really hard to do,” he said. “It’s actually a lot of things. With the farmers, there’s both in-field practices and edge of field practices.”

In-field practices, Lidtka said, include using cover crops and no-til practices to help prevent erosion

Lidtka said edge of field practices could be using nitrogen bioreactors and saturated buffer strips.

“The nitrogen bioreactor is a pit filled with wood chips, basically. It’s on the edge of a field. And so tile line will bring water into the wood chips and that water is coming from inside the field,” he said. “It’s bringing water that has nitrates in it through that pit of wood chips that’s under ground. Those wood chips serves as a carbon source for microorganisms and is a really good host habitat for microorganisms. And the nitrate serves as another food source.”

The nitrogen bioreactor has the two elements needed for microorganisms to thrive, Lidtka said.

“So those guys will naturally de-nitrify the water just because they’re chowing down on it and they’re trying to get into a harmless gas that goes up into the atmosphere,” he said. “That naturally filters our water of nitrates, which is pretty cool.”

Saturated buffer strips, Lidtka said, are basically strips of grass along the field.

“It’s taking that tile line and re-routing it so that it’s going along with that grass strip,” he said. “Then, as it’s going parallel, it lets the water out so that the grass roots and that carbon-rich soil, which is another good host for microorganisms are able to naturally de-nitrify that water again.”

The Mahaska County South Skunk Watershed Project kickoff is 11 a.m.–1 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at Agriland Farm Services Oskaloosa, 2305 Hwy. 23 South.

Managing Editor Angie Holland can be reached at aholland@oskyherald.com and followed on Twitter @OskyAngie.

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