Pharos-Tribune

February 28, 2014

Shedding pollution: Plan aims to clean up Deer Creek

Watershed management plan aims to clean up Deer Creek

by Sarah Einselen Pharos-Tribune
Pharos-Tribune

---- — 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 said. She’s a watershed specialist with the Wabash River Enhancement Corp., a nonprofit organization which has been studying how to improve the health of local watersheds over the past two years.

Now that that 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 has 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 come 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 admitted, 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.

“We are hoping that we can have it approved by mid-April and then have it implemented as soon as possible,” Tittelfitz said.

The funds, part of the $457,000 grant the organization secured in 2012 for the watershed project, may cover up to 75 percent of the cost of a conservation-oriented practice like cover crops, but the exact proportion is still under consideration.

Tittelfitz expects the cost-sharing program to fund cover crops, conservation tillage, field borders and filter strips, among other conservation practices. Cover crops and conservation tillage help control erosion while field borders and filter strips can filter runoff.

One farmer in southern Cass County tried planting cover crops for the first time last year.

Kory Wilson, whose family farms on some acreage in the Deer Creek watershed, put a filter strip at the edge of tomato fields in that area — about 60 feet of grass along the creek’s banks.

The Wilsons also planted cover crops on about 60 acres last year after the tomato harvest. It’s too early to gauge how effective the cover crops have been, he said, but he may plant cover crops on up to 150 acres the next time around.

Cover crops come with their own set of complications, he said. “Sometimes it’s worth its money, sometimes it’s not. It’s not always a guarantee it’s going to grow.”

Crop insurance programs don’t provide reimbursement for the practice, either, Wilson said, so it’s a risk farmers must weigh the worth of themselves.

The plan was submitted to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on Feb. 12 and will undergo a review from both IDEM and the EPA. Approval in mid-April is pending.

Once it’s approved, the cost-share money will be available over the next two years to those living or working in the Deer Creek-Sugar Creek watershed. The management plan will also improve eligibility for additional funding and grants, according to a press release from the Wabash River Enhancement Corp.

More information about the project is available on the corporation’s website at www.wabashriver.net/deer-creek-sugar-creek/.

Read the report Access the full study of the Deer Creek-Sugar Creek watershed on the Wabash River Enhancement Corp.'s website at www.wabashriver.net/deer-creek-sugar-creek/