Chad Watts
Chad Watts

NORMAL, Ill. — The “four Ds” have been transformed into the “four Rs” with a watershed nutrient management initiative that has drawn interest nationally.

The Indian Creek Watershed Project in Illinois’ southeastern Livingston County was the focus of a tour that drew about 300 visitors from 20 states.

The project, now in its third year, features on-farm research with farmers implementing conservation systems to improve water quality and keeping the nutrients in the fields for the crops’ use.

The tour kicked off one day earlier with a seminar hosted by the Conservation Technology Information Center and Solutions from the Land.

CTIC is a national public-private partnership that envisions agriculture using environmentally beneficial and economically viable natural resource systems and assists with the Indian Creek project.

SfL released a report earlier this year underscoring the need for land, water and other natural resources to be managed both in an integrated manner and at the scale necessary for its vision to be realized. The report spotlighted examples where innovative practices and land management approaches are taking place, including at Indian Creek.

“There are a number of programs involved, but the programs are tools. The focus is on the outcome. The focus is on the relationship. It’s what I think of as a new way of doing business,” Ernie Shea, SfL project coordinator, said at the seminar.

“When you think back on the origins of the conservation districts and how we used to work, it’s kind of back to the future. It’s back to the basics.”

Shea said there are about a dozen examples in the SfL report where “local leaders have been coming together, working in a different way, collaborating with government partners, taking risks and providing the leadership in changing the conversation from the problems of Indian Creek to the solutions that are coming out of the leadership in the Indian Creek watershed.”

“That’s the beating heart of what this project is about,” he said. “It’s about changing the conversation. It’s about going on the offense.

“It’s about being valued, being respected, being seen as something positive as opposed to oftentimes what we’ve done in the past, which is practice the four Ds — duck, deny, delay or deflect.

“The ag and forestry communities became pretty good at that over the decade. It was easier to hide. It was easier to point a finger at somebody else. We’re saying, ‘Enough of that.’ That’s not going to work going forward if we’re going to lead.”

The Indian Creek project focuses on the four Rs of right place, right time, right rate and right source and provided an ideal situation for CTIC to step in and begin facilitating a plan.

CTIC’s effort began with the group’s vision several years ago “of what we want to do in a watershed and watershed kind of work,” said Chad Watts, CTIC project director.

That vision resulted in received a 319 program grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The grants support projects designed to reduce water pollution through best management practices, educational projects and, to a limited extent, research and monitoring.

“We had this idea that we could bring social support, technical support and educational support to a watershed to help improve nutrient use efficiency,” Watts said.

“The next part of that plan was to develop a partner meeting with many of the partners from Illinois — Illinois EPA, (Natural Resources Conservation Service), Soil and Water Conservation districts — to find that right area that would serve as a good project for this kind of thing.

“Indian Creek was one of those places that sort of rose to the top for a variety of different factors. One of the reasons was the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District was one of the key elements that make this project a success.

“And they had a good strong partner in Livingston County, who, with the NRCS, has done a good job of saying, ‘Here’s our vision over the years,’ and providing technical assistance. We had strong community support for that project.”

He added the river also had nitrate levels that were at times above the acceptable levels.

He said all of these factors made the area an ideal place, “where we could use the opportunity to work with farmers to increase nutrient efficiencies with social, economic and educational support.”

“The Indian Creek Project partners include CTIC, Illinois EPA, Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Services and also the member companies that support CTIC all came together to determine what impact we could have on water quality if we could get over 50 percent of the watershed land and watershed producers to adopt conservation systems on their farms,” he said.

One of the highlights of the program is the partners brought a variety of strengths to the planning table.

SWCD, the local steering committee that helps guide the watershed project, applied for and received a Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative grant through NRCS to provide technical and financial assistance to producers to help implement conservation.

“The goal is to improve water quality, decrease soil erosion sediment, wildlife and to maintain the small- to medium-size farming operations in the watershed,” Watts said.

The funding targeted for Indian Creek was provided by USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. Those two programs provide opportunities for farmers to receive cost-share assistance to implement conservation systems on their farms.

“The good thing about this project was so many different factors came together,” Watts said. “The SWCD and NRCS brought the technical expertise and part of the funding for implementation of conservation.

“CTIC brought some watershed experience from other places, some facilitation experience involving member companies that helped provide products and technologies. The Illinois EPA and USDA provide support for water quality monitoring.

“So we have a lot of different groups, agencies and organizations that came at this from a different angle and provide different pieces of the puzzle to make it a successful project.

“Another key to this project was the formation of a local watershed steering committee comprised of many local residents, farmers and local politicians. The SWCD’s relationship with landowners helped to ask folks to be a part of that through personal invitations.”

He pointed out factors that have been critical to the success of the Indian Creek project.

“No. 1, we have producers in the watershed who are interested in learning different ways. They’re not averse to changing their way of doing things if they find something better. They’re willing to do that exploration to learn what that is,” he said.

“Some of the producers in the watershed sort of do their own nutrient efficiency trials outside of what CTIC promotes, so there’s all that kind of innovation and research happening. The other thing is the local support.

“The SWCD and NRSC there have at great rapport with landowners. Terry (Bachtold, SWCD ag resource coordinator) is a prime example of a guy who does a fantastic job of engaging with landowners and working with him.

“They trust him, and he’s brought a lot of business into that office through that watershed project for that very reason.

“Those are two keys if you’re looking at exporting that kind of information of a strong local partner that stays true to the mission of providing technical assistance and provides those opportunities for farmers to get involved.

“There is also the desire of farmers to maintain their farms, do a better job and to learn.”