Landowners and counties looking to improve their water quality and conservation initiatives need look no further than northeast Iowa’s Howard County, a nationwide leader in everything from wetlands development and cover crops to grass waterways and streambank stabilization efforts.

More than $1 million in state and federal cost-share dollars is being secured annually for Howard County watershed projects as part of the county’s nutrient reduction strategy and water quality initiative, through a joint effort with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and other agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency.

“Howard County has always had some type of water quality project in mind,” said Matt McDonald, Water Quality Initiative projects coordinator with IDALS.

“They’ve become a leader — having a water quality focus.  Iowans in general are willing to innovate and try new things.  That’s the reason why Iowa usually leads with the talks on water quality.”

Under the direction of Hunter Slifka, watershed project coordinator for the Turkey River Headwaters and Chihak Creek Watershed, Howard County has become a pace-setter in water quality initiative achievements.  
Slifka of Cresco, a 2018 Upper Iowa University graduate with a degree in conservation management, was honored in 2021 with the Circle of Excellence Award by the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance for his watershed efforts — securing state and federal funding for Howard County projects such as planting cover crops, wetlands development in cooperation with local farmers and stabilizing stream banks against erosion, to name a few.

Slifka also received the IDALS 2021 Outstanding Watershed Pro­ject award in Iowa. He’s worked in Howard County for eight years, starting as a high school volunteer and interning through his college years, and is proud of the moves being made in his home community.

“Traditionally, Howard County has numbered very high in the amount of projects,” Slifka said, “whether it’s watershed projects or conservation practices.

"Improving water quality, en­hancing wildlife habitat and increasing farm income — those three components make up our conservation plans. Collectively as a whole county and as a watershed, (we’re) basically leading the state and the nation in conservation. There aren’t many counties in Iowa or the nation that have the amount of dollars coming back to the county as we do.”

Wetland projects
Lime Springs farmer Tim Grabau worked with Slifka on his conservation plan this past year and couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

Slifka surveyed Grabau’s land and helped secure partial funding for the initiatives. Together, the two reviewed conservation practices and available programs.

In fall 2021, Grabau built a pond, numerous waterways, filter strips and quail buffers. This fall, he plans to leave some crop acres for wildlife. Cover crops and no-till soybeans are protocols in place on the farm as well.

The practices were launched primarily to protect the soil.

“The waterways have helped with soil erosion,” said Grabau. “No-till soybeans have de­creased operational cost, helped with lack of labor, de­creased the need for additional rock picking and lessened weed pressure.

“The pond was built in an area that was problematic to drainage,” Grabau explained.

Grabau’s wetland is one of several constructed annually in the watershed.  According to Slifka, they serve an important role.

“These wetlands basically act as a Brita filter,” he explained.  “Water is coming in, going through different processes, and when it leaves, it’s going to be clean enough, not necessarily to drink, but to go into a stream and be a high-quality stream at that point.”

Approximately 100 miles of grass waterways have been constructed across the watershed as well, which have helped reduce soil erosion tremendously, said Slifka. In a gully, as much as 45 tons of soil per acre can be washed away in a year’s time.  Shaping and seeding a gully area can reduce that soil loss.

“We can eliminate about 44 of those tons,” Slifka said. “And much of the black dirt that is at the bottom of the gully we can spread back on top of the hillside where it originally was.”

Cover crops - stabilization
Other Howard County watershed projects include planting cover crops and stream stabilization. Slifka estimates 12,000 acres were seeded in cover crops last year, and 20,000 acres are contracted for this fall. Farmers can take advantage of state and federal cost-share programs that offset some expenses.

“The main reason to plant cover crops is soil health,” Slifka said. “Having that living root out there year-round and having something covering the ground (is key).

“The big incentive now that people are understanding is the soil health benefits. Having that healthy soil, it (filters) the water, but then it’s also able to hold onto the water.”

Roughly 12 streambank stabilization projects have been completed in recent years, with the goal to keep the banks from eroding and washing sediment downstream.

Slifka said some of the sites are losing from 5 to 10 feet of bank a year. “That’s a ton of sediment that’s getting washed down and not holding tight,” he said.

A project typically involves creating a slope, digging a trench, packing in rock and covering with soil before seeding the bank with grass. So far, the projects are working as planned, he said.

“We have 20 or so in the hopper for when funding becomes available,” he said.

The county also has secured funds to help a local dairy farm, which recently completed a nearly $1 million manure pit/barn and is on schedule for a second, identical project.

“These pits/barns are crucial to water quality,” explained Slifka. “They give the farmer the opportunity to hold their manure for nine months or more and then be able to apply it at premier times of the year.”

Proud partnership
In total, Slifka estimates there are 24,000 acres of conservation throughout the 62,000-acre watershed. IDALS’ McDonald said the water quality initiatives in Howard County are great to see move from planning to actual implementation.

IDALS has been instrumental in providing administrative services to Howard County as well as cost-share dollars for nutrient reduction practices.

“Obviously, our goal is nutrient reduction in the state of Iowa through the nutrient reduction strategy,” McDonald said.

Building relationships through a water quality project coordinator who has boots on the ground with the local agricultural community has proven beneficial.

“We want to improve water quality in the state, but we also want to work with local landowners,” said McDonald. “The best way we feel to do that is that we have that local project coordinator that’s there working hand in hand with the landowner on projects for their farm.”

Slifka couldn’t agree more and credits farmers with buying into conservation practices and helping each other along the way.

“We need to take it very seriously and do what little part we can to move the water quality forward in a positive way,” he said. “If we can start with one watershed at a time … start small and build from there.

“To have these farmers who (locals) can go talk with and trust is even more important than having someone like us that knows all the programs.”

The goal is to make water quality top of mind, he said.

“There’s a lot more to do,” added McDonald. “We’re only just getting started with the water quality realm."