Lime Creek, a pictures­que stream that winds through southern Buch­an­­an County on its way to the Cedar River, has been transformed from an impaired water to one of Iowa’s outstanding waters, thanks to conservation efforts of farmers in the watershed.

By working together, and by working hand-in-hand with state and federal conservation agencies, farmers in the Lime Creek watershed have implemented a range of conservation practices, including reduced tillage, cover crops, buffer strips, forest reserves and other practices. The results of those efforts have clearly shown through in the quality of the creek’s water.

The Iowa Department Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that the efforts of the farmers in the Lime Creek Watershed Council, which was launched in 2006, have reduced the sediment reaching the creek by 959 tons per year, enough to fill 64 dump trucks. The conservation work has also reduced phosphorus levels in the creek by 1,500 pound per year and nitrate levels by 19%, the DNR said in the Lime Creek Watershed Project final report.

Gains in aquatic wildlife

Another indicator of success the farmers’ conservation work has been the gain of aquatic wildlife in Lime Creek, particularly native freshwater mussels.

A recent survey found six species of mussels living in Lime Creek, including three species that are considered threatened in Iowa. That’s a stark improvement from an earlier survey done in 1998, when no live mussels were found.

“This is a great example of farmers working together to help improve this local creek,” said Steve Hopkins, the DNR’s nonpoint source coordinator. “We’ve been able to tie the improvement in water quality to the work that the farmers did through the watershed program.”

Entirely farmer led

The efforts in the Lime Creek watershed are especially impressive because they were entirely farmer led and with only modest cost share offered to implement the conservation practices, said Chad Ingels, who helped coordinate the Lime Creek Watershed Project for Iowa State University (ISU) Extension. “There was just a lot of awareness among the farmers we worked with that they wanted to make things better.”

The project was launched in 2006, and nearly half of the farmers in the watershed participated, Ingels said. And even after the official project ended in 2009, farmers in the watershed kept working at implementing conservation practices to reduce soil and nutrient loss into the creek, he noted.

The conservation work just makes sense for farmers, said Dick Sloan, a Buchanan County Farm Bureau member and leader of the Lime Creek Watershed Council.

“We’ve always felt that protecting the soil was critical,” said Sloan, who farms near Rowley. “It’s the most valuable resource that you have, and there is no replacing it. If it goes downhill, you’ve lost future productivity forever.”

On his fields, Sloan adopted a no-till program, plants multispecies cover crops, installed prairie strips and has sown buffer strips to help keep sediment from reaching the stream. He plans to continue his work by adding wetlands and other conservation measures.

Taking on the challenge of conservation means trying different practices on different fields and determining what works, Sloan said.

“I learned a long time ago that different practices work better in some fields than in others, so it’s just a learning process,” he said. “Not everyone is going to be comfortable going whole hog like I did, but there are lot of different ways that you can make your fields more resilient.”

Mussels on the rebound

The work by Sloan and others in the watershed to reduce sediment and nutrient loss was directly responsible for im­­proved water quality in Lime Creek and rebounding mussel populations, said Jen Kurth, a DNR biologist who led the mussel survey.

 “What the farmers did, by putting in practices to keep soil on their fields, both benefited them and improved the health of the stream,” Kurth said.

The recovery of the mussel population in Lime Creek, Kurth said, is a very good signal. “If you have mussels in your stream, it’s a good indication that you have a healthy ecosystem.”

Along with the farmer-led Lime Creek Watershed Council, funding and technical assistance for the project came from the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board, the Cedar River Monitoring Coalition, ISU Extension and Buchanan County Extension. The DNR’s mussel survey was funded by an Environmental Protection Agency Section 319 Grant. 

Hear more about Lime Creek

Hear more about Lime Creek's recovery in this week's edition of The Spokesman Speaks podcast.