$150k to farmers to help improve watersheds

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LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) - Call it the trickle-down effect.

Rainwater, if it’s not filtered through the ground or vegetation, carries loose dirt, fertilizer or bits of cow pies off your field into the back creek. And what starts in Indiana is felt all the way to the Caribbean.

“There is a significant amount of sediment and nutrients going into the streams that feed into the Wabash River,” Talia Tittelfitz told the Pharos-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1d1f8ER ). She’s a watershed specialist with the Wabash River Enhancement Corp., a nonprofit organization that has been studying how to improve the health of local watersheds over the past two years.

Now that the study is completed and pending state and federal approval, the organization and its partners are preparing to offer $150,000 to farmers in the Deer Creek-Sugar Creek watershed to fund changes that ought to make the watersheds healthier.

How healthy a local creek is has ripple effects hundreds of miles away. Nitrogen and phosphorus mainly from agricultural land have spurred growth of large amounts of algae in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, causing what’s called a “hypoxic zone” threatening fish and shell organisms living in the Gulf.

The Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf carries runoff from parts or all of 31 U.S. states. More than 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that pollute the Gulf comes from agricultural sources that eventually pour into the Mississippi, according to an estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“On a bigger scale, the Wabash feeds into the Ohio feeds into the Mississippi feeds into the Gulf,” Tittelfitz explained. “The bigger picture here is starting to address at these smaller watershed levels, trying to get at some of those pollutants.”

Wabash River Enhancement Corp. recently released the results of its two-year study of the Deer Creek-Sugar Creek watershed. The Watershed Management Plan for the Deer Creek-Sugar Creek Watershed indicates segments of the watershed - part of which flows through southern Miami, Cass and Carroll counties - are polluted with fertilizer nutrients and E. coli.

Fish in some parts of the watershed are also contaminated with other chemicals.

The data in the study isn’t perfect, Tittelfitz acknowledged, but it suggests the fertilizer chemicals are normally below the level at which the state considers it a pollutant, but during storms, a substantial amount is dumped into waterways.

And that’s where the study comes in. Its whole purpose was to figure out how best to filter out those chemicals before they make it into the creeks.

In the watershed management plan developed as part of the study, the study’s steering committee indicated its goal is to reduce nitrates and phosphorus flowing into the watershed by 76 percent in the next 50 years. The shorter-term goal is to reduce nitrates flowing in, especially during storms, by 36 percent and reduce phosphorus by 7 percent by 2019.

The management plan targets soil erosion, too, aiming to reduce it by 13 percent by 2019 and ending with an 85 percent reduction goal in the next half-century.

It’s to be accomplished in part by encouraging farmers to plant more cover crops and increase their use of nutrient and pest management practices.

A cost-sharing program still in development will put $150,000 in front of farmers willing to foot part of the bill for the conservation practices.

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