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Clean Water Indiana promotes conservation practices

Published on 7/30/2022
Every person in the world needs and wants clean water. Most of us think of this as a universal human right: without water every living creature dies. Here in Indiana, safe urban and rural drinking water have been the norm — with some notable exceptions. Yet especially after World War II, when using chemicals in manufacturing, in industry, on lawns, and for row crop farming have become common practices, protecting our water resources has become key. As a culture we’ve had to be nimble to address this. Given the challenges — and we consumers cause much of the problem — we’ve been remarkably successful at keeping water safe. In fact, according to local water authorities, we currently have cleaner and healthier water here than at anytime in the last 100-150 years. We can affirm this by recalling the progress made in identifying the pollutants in Sugar Creek and then working to clean them up during the last 50 years. When we see a sign today that says “no swimming” where there has been swimming in the past, we might come to the wrong conclusion. Such a sign likely speaks more to contemporary vigilance rather than current practices. Right now we are testing [water] more than anytime in history. Keeping all our waters clean is an ongoing challenge and requires ongoing work, of course. Most readers are familiar with the volunteer work of Friends of Sugar Creek. Professional government programs provide the strong backbone to keep our soil and water safe. It is their mission.

Fortunately for rural America, far-sighted people saw that soil and water would need widespread protection back in the 1930s. What looked like good farming and water use practices out West led to the Dust Bowl. In l935, after “dirt clouds” actually reached Washington, DC, Congress acted. President Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act into law in 1935. (It was updated in 1977 and 2011.) The law was designed “to provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion and for other purposes.” Water management and conservation are central to these efforts. To create a conduit for federal soil and water conservation funds, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) were formed across the nation.

Because of this nearly 90-year old legislation, we have tools for addressing problems here in Montgomery County in 2022. We are fortunate to have an active SWCD. Maybe you saw Megan demonstrating “soil pizza” at a recent festival or perhaps you saw Kristen showcase our county’s ag leadership at the SWCD annual meeting. Maybe you noticed there will be an urban garden tour in a few days. Perhaps you paddled down Sugar Creek on the Farmer Friendly Float Trip. Have you been on a Weed Wrangle yet? These are all SWCD projects in action.

If you farm in Montgomery County, you likely know Marc Roberts. Marc is the secretary for the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and he farms near Mace. As he sees it, his main job is to stay in touch with farmers employing conservation practices in Montgomery County and parts of the other three counties he serves. The scope of SWCD work is wide and deep. To understand a piece of it, let’s hone in on Clean Water Indiana, a state program whose mission is enshrined in its name.

Our county’s SWCD has been a powerful CWI advocate and activist. The funds in Clean Water Indiana are supplied by a small fraction of Indiana cigarette tax money and a line item in the state budget. Each county is given a stipend of $10,000 and granting opportunities provide additional resources. In recent years, MoCo has been a successful competitor in three grant cycles. SWCD program coordinator Megan Sweeney arrived in the county last fall and has wasted no time in building invaluable bridges to help people who live in town, especially, understand their role in conserving soil and water. Under her leadership, Montgomery County Community Growers has formed. The Community Growers sponsor the westside Garden Tour on July 30.

CWI also works closely with other state and federal conservation programs including one that promotes taking land out of production for long periods; other partner programs promote land and river health and provide resources and education to engage citizens in promoting urban soil health. Do you know what a soil slump test is or just how important deep rooting systems are in cover crops and why? It might be time to learn.

As he looks back over his 15 years of professional soil and conservation work, Marc Roberts notes that real changes have come, some of them pre-dating his time as supervisor. Many more farmers today, for instance, try cover crops than they did a decade ago. Cover cropping reduces soil loss. No-till, which also reduces soil loss, has been increasing over the last 30 years. When soil loss is reduced, the land has a much better chance to retain water through the seasons.

According to Roberts, ongoing scientific work at improving fertilizers and herbicides as well as the technology employed to use them “at the right rate at the right time and in the right place” has led farmers to be more savvy soil and water conservation practitioners. For instance, Round-Up Ready bean seed, developed in the mid-90s, has dramatically reduced farmers’ need to till.

Looking at the water part of the picture, Roberts is quick to say, “Our #1 priority here in Montgomery County is Sugar Creek. It cuts our county in two and is highly visible to all. It’s a destination for boating, fishing, tourism, crinoid seekers, and more. Virtually all other ditches and creeks in the county drain into Sugar Creek and then into the Wabash.”

Because of this, we must manage livestock carefully and safely; ag runoff must be reduced; and, urban residents need to monitor their use of water and chemicals. Soil health should be everyone’s priority. Whether it’s by employing no-till, or planting cover crops, or a backyard vegetable or pollinator garden, it all matters. As Kristen Latzke, our SWCD conservation director, notes, “Sometimes there is a little disconnect between those who live in town and those who live in the country but everyone impacts conservation. You can play a positive or negative role [in conserving our soil and water] no matter where you live.”