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Cleaning up a watershed

Waterways heal as a conservation district and its farmers work to conserve soil.

When Carbondale, Kansas, corn-and-soybean grower Keith Badger became chairman of the Osage County Conservation District some years ago, he took on a role that would challenge his leadership skills while making good use of his longtime experience with no-till and cover crops.

The conservation district stands front and center in an unfolding chain of events flowing from local agencies’ concerns over water quality. Pomona Lake, a 4,000-acre, manmade lake located within the county, had been experiencing sedimentation and eutrophication from phosphorus.

“Our key concern initially was sedimentation in the lake,” says Badger. “It had lost 25% to 30% of its storage capacity. And because phosphorus attaches to the sediment particles coming into the lake, water quality was being affected.”

The loss of water storage in the lake was a concern for communities downstream. A convergence of three creeks feeds the lake, and one of the creeks continues down the outlet channel where it meets the Marais des Cygnes River downstream.

“Flood control was one of the reasons for the building of Pomona Lake,” says Lori Kuykendall, conservation district manager. “Reducing sedimentation so that the lake’s water-storage capacity is preserved is a way to manage flood risk downstream.”

Holding a long-term goal of addressing the issues causing sedimentation and eutrophication in the lake, the Osage County Conservation District applied for federal grant monies made available by the Clean Water Act.

With the awarding of funds, the Pomona Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) project was formed. The project is administered through a partnership agreement between Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the Osage County Conservation District.  

The five farmer-board members of the conservation district comprised the stakeholder leadership team, with Kuykendall serving as project coordinator. Representatives from local and state agencies made up an advisory board. The current stakeholder leadership team is a diverse group with interests in farming, ranching, wildlife, and industry.

“The Pomona WRAPS project became the first of its kind for a conservation district in Kansas,” says Kuykendall, who drafted the strategic plan for the project. There are now 19 other WRAPS areas across Kansas involving other local conservation districts.

The Pomona WRAPS plan hinges on four key points:

1. Identify watershed restoration and protection needs and opportunities.

2. Establish management goals for the watershed community.

3. Create a cost-effective action plan to achieve goals.

4. Implement the action plan.

“We focus our project monies on farm fields that are in the drainage areas feeding into two of the creeks flowing into Pomona Lake – Dragoon Creek and 110 Mile Creek,” says Kuykendall.

The region’s landscape makes soil conservation an ongoing need. “Because of our rolling topography, there’s always the potential for water to run off the slopes,” says Badger. “That, combined with cropping practices in general, was leading to enough soil loss to cause concern for our drainage basin.

“Some of the conservation practices we promote and cost-share include keeping established grasses growing in buffer strips and waterways so that these areas are viable and functioning,” he says. “We also promote and cost-share the growing of cover crops and conversion to no-till. We also support nutrient-management practices, which involve grid soil sampling of fields and variable-rate fertilizer applications.”

Cost sharing

The Pomona WRAPS project extends to livestock producers, as well, supporting practices that reduce potential runoff from livestock feeding areas.

“We try to think outside the box and provide cost-sharing for any practice that will provide reductions in loss of sediment and nutrients from crop or livestock areas,” says Badger. “We’ll look at cost-sharing any practice, for instance, that would keep cover crops in place longer. That could be the establishment of electric fencing or remote watering sites for livestock to graze longer on cover crops. We’re very flexible.”

To spread the word about the Pomona Watershed WRAPS project and available cost sharing, the conservation district holds outreach meetings.

“We explore what we are offering to help stop erosion and emphasize that the objective of the grant is clean water and preservation of our resources,” says Badger. “Personally reaching out to individual farmers is another way that members of the conservation district board of directors spread the word about the WRAPS project. “We rely on old-fashioned phone calls to let people know about the kind of assistance we’ll provide for beneficial practices,” says Badger.

“In many ways, the biggest challenge to widespread adoption of conservation practices is farmers’ understandable resistance to cultural change,” he says. “We seldom look at the water that’s leaving our farms and see the soil and nutrients it’s carrying away.”

While hidden, the out-of-pocket costs of implementing conservation practices such as planting cover crops and establishing grassed waterways and grassed buffers at field edges are more visible and more immediate.

“It’s an unseen gain when you stop the erosion and hold nutrients on your farm,” says Badger. “But it’s measurable over time. Farmers who persevere in adopting conservation practices eventually see an economic benefit from retaining soil and nutrients. We see improvements in crop yields and a cost savings from maintaining erosion-protection structures such as grassed waterways. These reduce costs resulting from having to repair erosion damage in fields.”

The conservation district’s efforts to work with community farmers and ranchers in cleaning up the Pomona Watershed are paying off. Farmers and ranchers are adopting cost-shared conservation practices on a scale large enough to make a difference.

“A recent report showed that the quality of water coming into the watershed is improving,” says Badger. “It was encouraging to hear that our work with WRAPS is paying off.”

Cover crops in the limelight

To showcase the planting of cover crops as a soil-conservation tool, Kansas no-till farmer Keith Badger maintains a demonstration plot along a highway near his farm. A sign identifies the cover crop planting as one of the practices cost-shared by the Pomona Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) project.

The cover crop mix varies depending on the previous crop. A recent cover crop behind corn included rye, triticale, barley, radishes, turnips, and a legume.

“This year, because the previous crop was soybeans, I planted cereal rye, vetch, and radish,” he says. “Because we often don’t get enough growing time for the cover crop, we had the cover crop seed flown on ahead of harvesting the soybeans.”

While the demonstration plot showcases the work of the local WRAPS project, Badger’s farm itself portrays the results of long-term no-till cropping combined with cover crop planting.

“Water infiltration is improving, and microbial activity is increasing on our farm,” he says.

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