Marion Shier
Marion Shier
NORMAL, Ill. — A cooperative investment in time and effort by individual farmers, organizations and suppliers has led to the growing success of a watershed project.

The Indian Creek Watershed Project in southeast Livingston County in Illinois has provided a showcase of collaboration since the soil health, nutrient and water management effort began in 2010.

The project was highlighted in the Conservation in Action Tour, and a pre-tour seminar the previous day when watershed steering committee members Marcus Maier and Marion Shier provided background on how the effort began and suggestions to others hoping to begin similar initiatives.

Maier, a fourth-generation farmer from Forrest, said Indian Creek is a small portion of the Vermilion River Watershed that includes parts of Ford, LaSalle, McLean and Marshall counties and most of Livingston County.

There are about 51,000 acres in the Indian Creek Watershed and about 104 farms in the watershed.

“We started this project in 2010. We had an (Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative) grant that led to our work with the (Conservation Technology Information Center) and the Illinois EPA,” Maier said. “So we all worked together to put this together.

“There were two primary reasons we got started. We have two major communities that get their drinking water from the Vermilion River, which Indian Creek flows into on its way to the Illinois River.”

Pontiac, the county seat with a population of about 12,000, relies on the Vermilion River for its drinking water, as does Streator in Livingston and LaSalle counties with a population of more than 14,000.

Maier said the efforts are improving the water quality and include addressing the four Rs of nutrient stewardship — right source, right rate, right place and right time.

“It takes farmers willing to try some new things to try to develop this to see what works in each individual piece of ground that they farming and what they can do to make that better,” he said.

Shier, who served with the University of Illinois Extension for 33 years and now is an agronomist with United Soils in Fairbury, located in the watershed, said the project was easily adopted in the county because of the work over the past 20 years by the Vermilion River Watershed Task Force.

“We were dealing with the issues of nitrates. We were dealing with all sorts of community input, all sorts of community leaders, volunteers, as well as the agricultural sector,” he said. “So in our area we had lots of individuals already actively involved, moving forward with ideas and wanting to go forward with successful things to improve the nitrates in the Vermilion River.”

At times, the nitrate levels in the Vermilion River exceed 10 parts per million. There also are times in the year when the levels are only one or two parts per million.

“Nitrate is a water-soluble nutrient. When we have excess rains, the water flushes out the system, hits the river and then the levels escalate,” Shier said. “After having worked with the Vermilion Watershed Task Force for a long time, a lot of people in the Indian Creek watershed location were actively interested in pursuing new practices to try to improve the process.”

The steering committee’s initial goal to notify all of the producers in the Indian Creek Watershed about the initiative was successful.

Since the initial contact, 35 percent of the producers joined in the efforts, and 41 percent of the land currently is enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The project also includes delivering information to others, and that has been done through the summer tours and winter meetings. More than 150 attending last summer’s tour, and 100 were at the winter meetings. The recent tour included about 300 from 20 states.

In addition to the farmers, the project has 14 active sponsors. Demonstrations have increased from three in 2011 to seven last year and 13 this year.

Shier said many individuals, groups and ag suppliers are responsible for the Indian Creek program’s success.

“One thing to keep in mind is not every project, not every practice you choose to study and work with is going to be successful. We need to make sure that we use common sense,” he said.

One example was last year when the drought limited any conclusions.

“This year was a little bit more on the moist side, at least so far, but the issue is that there are variations of weather patterns and practices need to be adjustable. We need to be able to roll with the flow and make adjustments on the go,” Shier said.

He noted several items of consideration when undertaking such an endeavor.

“You can’t obviously expect instantaneous success. Try a few things. Make adjustments. Adjust your practices. Adjust your timing,” he said.

“Try the use of cover crops. Some cover crops are better suited for some locations than others — some cover crops used in southern Illinois may not be as successful in northern Illinois.”

A key to the project’s success has been the local individuals involved who have an interest and excitement about the process.

“The local producers are actively involved in the process of making decisions,” Shier said. “So it’s not a matter of thou shalt do it by some government agency. It is a cooperative investment of time and effort by local individuals, the producers, all the local suppliers working as a group effort.

“Obviously, leveraging partnerships has been very beneficial. You can get a lot more done with people working together, and you can build on those successes.

“We need to be inclusive. You don’t want to exclude people. You want to include everyone’s information, look at everyone’s suggestions, comments.”

He said it is important to be upfront with motives when undertaking such a project.

“Farmers are an independent lot. If they sense that there’s a hidden agenda, the acceptance, the enthusiasm will likely wane,” he said. “So make sure that you lay everything out in front, lay it on the table and try to make sure everyone is aware of what’s going on and not trying to sneak something in the back door.

“You need to make sure you’re recognizing people for their successes, as well as their desires, and make sure the individuals themselves are trying to make sure that they’re taking care of their environment.

“And, for the most part, individuals are really concerned about maintaining the environment around their locations, as well as the general society.

“I think, for the most, part producers are good stewards. They don’t want to do things incorrectly. They want to do things that are appropriate.

“They want to make sure they’re doing things from a cost-effective standpoint and want to make sure that it’s done correctly.

“Respect and engage the community. Obviously, the enthusiasm that’s in the Indian Creek Watershed will be evident from the tours, and you want to make sure the community is involved.”