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How one small watershed got off Iowa's list of hundreds of water impairments

Part of Farmers Creek runs through Bob Kremer's farm in Jackson County. The small watershed in northeast Iowa was taken off April 2022 Photo taken May 25, 2022.
Clay Masters
Part of Farmers Creek runs through Bob Kremer's farm in Jackson County. The small watershed in northeast Iowa was taken off the state's impaired waters list in April. Photo taken May 25.

Hundreds of Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams do not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standards and are impaired under the federal Clean Water Act. While it is very easy for a body of water to be added to this list, it is harder to get one removed.

Landowners in one small watershed in eastern Iowa are celebrating getting off the list this year.

Bob Kremer drives his ATV down a road that cuts through Farmers Creek, which rolls through some of his farmland in Jackson County. He grows row crops and finishes 250 to 300 cattle in eastern Iowa. What happens on this and neighboring farms along the creek has a direct impact on the health of the waterway.

There are many obstacles on his land to slow down the soil and manure from washing into this tributary of the Maquoketa River. There’s a cattle structure with a concrete floor to keep manure from seeping into the ground. Kremer does no-till farming, has grassy banks along the creek and there are earthen levees to keep water dammed during especially wet years.

“We're just borrowing this land from the future generation, so the idea was leave it as good or better than it was when we got it,” Kremer said in May. “Let's save the soil.”

Kremer admits there are not a lot people who do as much conservation as he does on his farm.

A success story that’s taken years of work

Until just a few months ago, Farmers Creek was on the list of impaired waters in Iowa. Enough area landowners have started following Kremer’s lead to get Farmers Creek off that list. It’s taken years of work. Kremer’s conservation started in the early 2000s, around the time it landed on the list. The EPA mandates that all states update that record every couple of years.

There are three criteria for waters to be designated impaired: recreation (swimming, fishing, boating), biological (fish and invertebrates) and human drinking water.

“In this case, with the fish kills, and then the further sampling that was done in the creek, it was evident that the biological community was not doing what it was supposed to be doing,” said Iowa DNR biologist Jennifer Kurth.

The DNR estimates that roughly 14,000 tons of sediment from the highly erodible farmland surrounding the creek was washing into it every year. Kurth said getting an impaired water off the list is not very common.

“It does happen,” Kurth said. “But this is the first one that we've done that is based on the biological integrity, the scores of the fish and the invertebrates.”

Fast forward to today and the creek is in much better shape. Sediment from erosion is down and recent samples show a greater diversity of fish and invertebrate species. In late April, Kurth said it was officially delisted as an impaired water.

Getting buy-in from landowners took a personal touch 

Farmers Creek is in a better place, but it took nearly two decades and a personal touch to make it happen. Kurth said the biggest thing this watershed had going for it was Michelle Turner from the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Michelle Turner stands outside the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District in Maquoketa where she worked to get Farmers Creek off the Iowa DNR's list of Impaired Waters. Photo taken May 25, 2022.
Clay Masters
Michelle Turner stands outside the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District in Maquoketa where she worked to get Farmers Creek off the Iowa DNR's list of Impaired Waters.

Beginning in 2005, Turner helped local farmers learn about various federal and state public funds that incentivize cleaning up the water by implementing practices like Kremer's.

After all, these practices are all voluntary in the state so an impaired designation does not demand any changes.

Turner says it’s nice when you get to know all the landowners personally.

“You don't have that advantage in a very large watershed that does whole rivers [that span] five or six counties,” Turner said. “But when you're doing a small 30,000 acre with 125 landowners you get to know them and become friends with them I think you get more done.”

Turner says a lot of the buy-in came from creating local buzz through local radio and newsletters and helping educate landowners.

“Nobody wants to be the only guy on the block who doesn't do something,” Turner said. “I think when you start seeing everybody in the neighborhood on board, more people wanted to get involved.”

Addressing a bigger water quality problem in Iowa

Farmers Creek is a local success story that other communities can learn from, according to University of Iowa Civil and Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny. He said many other waterways show the same symptoms but the cure is not simple to repeat.

“We can't expect that every community is going to be able to rally and find the resources and the willpower in the collective good to improve their water bodies,” Cwiertny said. “We need to be asking ourselves why we have so many that are impaired in the first place, and not just try to make these marginal improvements on the edge of our agricultural system.”

Cwiertny said there are solutions. He points to the University of Iowa, which runs a statewide monitoring network that’s provided real time water quality data, but a more robust system takes more investment and commitment.

“We need that to happen statewide and at far faster pace, if we're going to try to make the meaningful change in water quality that I think the majority of Iowans are really hoping for these days,” Cwiertny said.

Meanwhile, back in Jackson County, farmers who share their namesake with this creek have done a rare tangible act of conservation. One waterway off a list of nearly 800 impairments in the state.

The Midwest Newsroom's Daniel Wheaton analyzed data for this report.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.
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