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Establish Resilient Waterways the First Try

By Kacey Birchmier

After struggling to successfully establish waterways that could withstand Iowa rains, Brad Plunkett of central Iowa turned to a new idea. In 2011, he began installing erosion-control blankets for waterways. Shortly after that, he became an evangelist for the practice and began selling them to other landowners.

The blankets – thin straw mats with layers of biodegradable netting on both sides – are designed to withstand a flash flood event resulting from a 2-inch downpour. They’re made by an Ohio-based company called Nancy’s Blankets and come in rolls 16 feet wide and 560 feet long.

What it costs
At estimated costs of $150 per hour for grading and $75 per acre for seed, it doesn’t take long for the expense of installing a waterway to add up. The cost of materials and installation for the erosion control blankets is 7¢ to 8¢ per square foot.

“It only takes one early rain, and you have an eroded gully in which you can never get a grass cover established. The blankets are an insurance policy. With the costs of groundwork and seed, you don’t want a washed-out waterway that you have to redo two years down the road,” says Plunkett.

He uses an ATV to unroll the material over the newly graded and seeded waterway. After the blanket is unrolled, it is staked into place. The blanket serves both as erosion control and as a mulch to help protect the new seeding until it has a chance to become firmly established.

“Any rainwater flows over the top of the blanket, so it can’t carry away soil,” Plunkett explains. “The blanket also holds in moisture during dry periods, but the grass can grow right through it.”

Now in his fourth year with the business, he’s found that the erosion-control blankets are the most efficient way for him to establish a waterway – the first time.
“Installing a waterway is a good conservation practice to stop erosion. We can’t afford to have our soil wash down the river,” says Plunkett.

Success – at last
Before he learned about erosion-control blankets, Plunkett says he had no success establishing waterways. He tried other methods, such as using cover crops to protect the new seeding, but nothing worked. Unable to get a strong stand of grass to develop in time for heavy rain, he knew he needed to be proactive. Otherwise, it was a total loss.

“It never failed. Heavy rains came before the seeding was well established, and I’d have an eroded gully going down the center of the waterway,” Plunkett says.

The math added up when he realized the expense of reseeding and regrading the waterway was more than the cost of installing the blankets.

Plunkett and his crew have successfully installed the erosion-control blankets on more than 50 farms per year across Iowa.

“I’m four years in, and my waterways are still in perfect shape,” says Plunkett. He no longer worries about Mother Nature eroding his waterways.

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