By Isaac Hamlet, GTNS News
Some of the best farmland in the world is in the Gulf of Mexico, according to James Waterhouse
Due largely to rain and wind, Iowa farmland has been moved into bodies of water carrying the soil downstream, feeding it into the Mississippi and, eventually, flowing out into the gulf.
The Waterhouse family has been championing soil conservation in the area for more than half a decade. Back in 1952 James’ father built some of the first gradient terraces in Washington County and James himself is responsible for some of the first tile terraces built in the county in the ‘70s.
Waterhouse Constuction, consisting of James, his son Jamie and his grandson Justin, has more recently installed the first bioreactor in Washington County. They built that first bioreactor inside of a week for West Chester farmer Rob Stout in the summer of 2014. Designed by the Natural Resouces Conservation Center, the bioreactor was built on the edge of Stout’s land to help reduce nitrate pollution in water running off his farm. The project was initiated because the West Fork Crooked Creek Watershed group, which Stout is a part of, received a grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to be used for improving water quality. Stout immediately volunteered to have a bioreactor installed on his property.
“I’m passionate about conservation and I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and step up to the plate,” Stout said.
The bioreactor cost $14,400 by Stout’s recollection; however, with government cost-sharing on it, his bill ended up being a little over $7,000.
Having worked with James before, Stout contacted Waterhouse Construction to create the reactor. Since then, the NRCS has been recording the nitrate level going in and coming out. According to Tony Maxwell, who works with district soil conservation with the NRCS, they check it every two weeks and Stout’s reactor is working surprisingly well even five years later. On average, a bioreactor is expected to filter out about 40 percent. Stout’s bioreactor was at 90 percent when it was first built and has been in the high 80s even five years later.
“A bioreactor is almost like a muffler on the end of a tile system,” Maxwell said. “What it does is it grabs the free nitrogen, so instead of getting into the Gulf of Mexico it evaporates into the atmosphere.”
This is a recent edge-of-field practice which started being used over the last decade or so. According to James, in terms of construction a bioreactor is “a trench in the ground filled with hard wood chips.” Water drained from the farmland is routed through the bioreactor, where the “three to four semi-truck loads” of wood chips inside absorb the pollution. James noted that the bioreactor still is new enough technology that its results and effects have yet to be determined over a substantial period. It’s hard to say whether it will become widely used or cost-effective. He’s not sure what bioreactors will do in the long term, but he’s witnessed what other practices can do over the past few decades.
“When I was a kid, on a windy day when Skunk River was starting to flood, if you’d stand on the bridge and look at the river, the waves would look like chocolate bars rolling over the water,” James recalled. “Now, and I’ve complimented the NRCS boys on it, you go down there after a hard rain when the wind’s blowing and there’s white caps on that water. That is soil conservation at work.”
James work has contributed to this cleaner water with the tile terraces, which reduce erosion by letting water run under the soil rather than over it, wetlands, which hold nitrates and allow plant life to filter them out before releasing them into the water. He himself has implemented all of this on his own land over the years.
“All of the land I own is checked erosion control,” James said. “There’s not one drop of water that leaves my farm unless it goes through a wetland, a pond, or terrace.”
James estimates that, on over a thousand acres of land, he has roughly 250 acres converted into wetlands. Having these wetlands and terraces in place also allows him to control the flow of water and mitigate flooding. Using stop-logs at the edge of his land, he can control how quickly he releases how much water he into the river.
This is sustainable via government cost-sharing which currently pays farmers approximately $300 an acre for wetlands, though James said number fluctuates depending on the wetland and expressed concerns that the government might end the program to save money. If the government did stop cost sharing for wetlands, James and other farmers would have to fill in these wetlands in order to make them profitable and use them as farmland. This would increase not only the amount of nitrogen going back into the water, but also the amount of erosion occurring.
“I’ll be real disappointed if they stop this program,” James said. “It’s not going to hurt just the farmers, it’s going to hurt the fisheries; ‘cause we’re going to have more dirt going down to the Gulf of Mexico.”
A more immediate concern for Waterhouse has been ice. While his machinery can work with mud and his land can tolerate flooding, the ice that was on the ground halted progress on James’ work for more than three weeks, the longest Waterhouse can remember without being able to lay tile.
“It’s been a cold long winter,” said Waterhouse. “The ice has really held the plow up. We plow a lot of tile all winter long and because of this ice, we can’t get the traction.”
Through early March, much of his equipment was stuck on Andy McCall’s property, waiting to for the snow to melt enough for his machines to be able to grip the soil, get back to work and lay tile for spring to continue his work conserving Iowa soil.