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Local Group Seeks Innovative Ways To Protect Indiana Watersheds

Local watershed management coalitions are springing up across the state.  One such organization new to the game is the West-Central Indiana Watershed Alliance.

“A watershed is an area of land that drains into a body of water.  And you can actually think of them kind of like those Russian nesting dolls where one stacks inside another and stacks inside another,” said Coordinator Lisa Holscher.

In her scenario the smallest nesting doll is a mud puddle.  Everything that flows into the mud puddle is that puddle’s watershed.  Water from the puddle then flows into the next larger nesting doll, say, a ditch, which in turn drains into another doll such as the Busseron Creek in the Busseron Watershed.  That  Watershed then feeds into the Wabash, which nests in an even larger watershed, the Ohio River basin, and finally, all of that feeds into the Mississippi.

“By all these connections, anything that happens here in our little watershed—in that mud puddle’s watershed—has the potential, through this whole nesting effect, to actually flow through down to the Gulf of Mexico.  That’s what a watershed is,” Holscher said.

The WCIWA began as a coalition working to improve the water quality in the Busseron Creek Watershed through best management practices and educational outreach.  Holscher said since watersheds do not adhere to county borders, the Alliance has since grown to include more political districts and more watersheds.

“The other watersheds, Turman, Turtle, Kelly Bayou, are all almost all in Sullivan County,” Holscher said.  Turman Creek actually extends down from Vigo County through Sullivan flowing southwest into the Wabash River.”

Holscher’s job encompasses a lot of different duties, but one important aspect is developing conservation packages, or plans, for farmers whose fields drain into her watersheds.  Because the WCIWA is not a regulatory entity, all farmers who agree to work with Holscher are doing so voluntarily.  To get farmers to sign on, she helps them identify issues affecting the water quality of streams on their property and then connects them with a corresponding government program.  Holscher said success lies in appealing to a farmer’s economic sensibilities.

“I call it selling conservation.  Because you’ve got to make it something these folks want to buy into, something all these farmers want to buy into that’s going to make sense to their bottom line because their businessmen.  You also have to address the objections they’re going to have.  It’s sales 101: identify the objections, overcome them, close the sale.”

According to Holsher the two major objections farmers have are cost and the amount of paper work.  She said conservation is not cheap and the paper work to sign up for various government programs is not easy to wade through.  Owner and Operator of Ready Farms Gary Ready is a fifth generation farmer and has, with Holscher’s help, recently signed onto a conservation program offered through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service.   He already practices some environmentally-friendly farming techniques such as no-till which reduces soil erosion. However Ready’s interest was piqued by something called precision farming.”

“When the fertilizer company comes out and puts on fertilizer, they put it on with satellite maps,” Ready explained. “ If one area of a field needs, say, potash it puts on more potash there.  Then if you get into an area where you don’t need it, the machines automatically adjust as they go and spread what you need where you need it rather than just a blanket of fertilizer.”

Using precision farming techniques not only saves Ready money, but also keeps excess chemicals out of the water.  Farmers are also encouraged to create buffers of grass between their crops and streams to protect the soil and create habitat for wildlife. Although, that tactic takes land out of production and can cost the farmer money.  These are only a few alternatives available to Indiana Farmers in the Busseron watershed but Ready says it’s hard to change a farmer who is set in their ways.  School of Public and Environmental Affairs Clinical Professor Bill Jones said that changing generation old habits is the next challenge for groups like the WCIWA.

“Many behaviors we learn from our parents and from our grandparents,” Jones said.  “Many times I’ve talked to many farmers, for example, and they’ve said well, my dad always did it this way and his dad before him and so we’re just carrying on the family tradition.  Well, those family traditions might have been fine with 100 acre fields but now that we’ve gone to bigger agriculture there are bigger issues.”

Furthermore, Jones pointed out farmers are not the only ones who have chemicals running into the waterways.  He said homes in urban areas contribute to the problem too.

“Interestingly enough in residential areas, residential levels of lawn fertilizers and lawn pesticides are often much higher than those found in agricultural areas.”

And that’s not all, there is still acid mine drainage—or highly acidic, metal rich water—seeping into waterways from abandoned mines  all of which eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.    The result of all this is something called the dead zone in the Gulf a phenomenon currently being overshadowed by the BP oil spill.  The dead zone is an area of low-oxygen water surrounding the outfall of the Mississippi that cannot support marine life.  Increased use of chemical fertilizers is cited as causing the depletion of oxygen in the Gulf’s dead zone. Holscher admitted the task of addressing so many issues with such large consequences may seem daunting, but, she said, if you look at the situation in increments—look at the puddle instead of the Mississippi—the solution is not that far off.

“And if you take a lot of these little projects, and if you take all of these watersheds doing the same kind of work we can really make a huge impact nationally and globally environmentally.”

And as Holscher pointed out, everyone lives downstream from someone.

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