Watershed Education

The Thornapple River Watershed Management Plan

The Thornapple River Watershed Management Plan (TRWMP) is a report on the Thornapple River Watershed (TRW) that compiles data on water quality and discusses plans to address the needs of the watershed. Data used in the report was collected throughout the 1990s and 2000s and the plan was approved in June of 2016. The purpose of the TRWMP is to provide information and encourage action to address impairments in the TRW and protect our water resources.  Within the TRWMP you can find data on the Thornapple river and its sub-watersheds that includes uses, impairments, sources of pollution, and objectives. With an approved watershed management plan in place, the Barry Conservation District was able to begin applying for watershed grants to fund implementation in the TRW. The first implementation grant was recently received by the BCD via the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and work is already underway to begin addressing impairments in the watershed.

What is happening in your watershed?

Water quality has been popping up on the news a lot lately and it may have you wondering what is being done to protect your water locally. The Barry Conservation District has recently been awarded a grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to fund Thornapple River Watershed Management Plan implementation. This grant provides the funding for the Conservation District to be able to assist farmers and landowners in implementing agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) and proper septic system maintenance to improve the water quality in our community.

Given the predominately rural nature of Barry county, the main focuses of the grant are agriculture and on-site waste water treatment (septic systems). On the land management side, we have funds available to help farmers and landowners implement practices such as filter strips, cattle fencing along streams and planting of cover crops just to name a few.  Alternatively, at the home owner level, we are offering funding to cover voluntary septic system inspections to look for failing septic systems as well as a cost share option to replace or repair any problem septic systems to help ease the financial burden of such a task. The project scope covers over 57,000 acres in three of the most impaired sub-watersheds in the Thornapple River watershed: Mud Creek, Fish Creek, and Milbourn Drain. The main goal of this project is to reduce pollutants within the watershed such as nutrients, sediment and E. coli.

By accomplishing these goals, we will be contributing to better water health not only locally but downstream as well. This eventually leads to positive impacts all the way up to the Great Lakes level. With voluntary community support, we hope to work together with farmers and landowners to ensure clean water for many generations to come.

Non-point Source pollution: Who’s problem is it?

Pollution sources can be sorted into two categories, point and non-point source. As you can guess from the name, point source pollution has a single, identifiable source from which it is emanating. That fact makes point source pollution easy to locate, and therefore easier to correct. On the other hand, non-point source pollution can be far harder to identify and address. This is because there is generally never a cut-and-dry answer as to where this type of pollution is originating from.

The blame for non-point source pollution gets thrown around frequently, bouncing from wild animal waste, agricultural runoff, and faulty or outdated septic systems. While some truth lies in these claims, it is not an issue that can be blamed on one source. In reality it is a combination of these sources and it is up to all of us as a community to work together for the health of our watershed. By working together as a community to implement sound agricultural Best Management Practices and addressing our failing septic systems, we can positively impact our non-point source pollution problem locally.

The Importance of Water Health in Michigan

Michigan is blessed with 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, over 11,000 inland lakes, 30,000 miles of navigable rivers, and millions of acres of wetlands. It comes at no surprise that water is on the minds of many a Michigander. And so, too, should water quality. After all, healthy waterways are vital to the economy, recreation opportunities, and our own health and well-being.

Michigan’s economy depends on water. According to michiganblueeconomy.org, 1 in 5 jobs in Michigan are water-related. Our Great Lakes provide ample shipping opportunities. Rain and groundwater give life to our crops and our streams carry away excess water, making more land tillable. Water-based tourism and recreation define what it means to be in “Pure Michigan.”

Whether taking a dip in Lake Michigan, visiting waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula, hitting your favorite stream for the trout opener, or even hitting the slopes in winter, water is a big part of recreation in Michigan. Ask just about anyone and they will tell you that recreation and water are almost synonymous in our state.

Water quality has been popping up on the news a lot lately, and there are many examples of why water quality is so important to our health and well-being. Hazardous chemicals, bacteria and other pathogens, and nutrients can very easily enter our water undetected and cause major health issues and negative environmental impacts. It is up to each of us to protect our water resources and ensure that we have safe water for drinking and other personal uses far into the future.

Whatever water means to you, we can all agree that it is a resource that deserves our care and attention. Throughout the county and state you can find groups, like the Barry Conservation District, that are committed to protecting our water for future generations.

Watersheds and the Water Cycle

Many of us may recall learning about the water cycle and watersheds in a science class back in grade school, but what we may not understand is how important these things are to our daily lives. Let’s start with a little refresher course on the water cycle, what a watershed is, and how what happens within our watershed can impact us.

The water cycle is the process that water goes through as it moves throughout the ground, air and surface of Earth. The basics of the water cycle are evaporation into the atmosphere from surface water; precipitation from the atmosphere in the form of rain or snow; and groundwater recharge from surface water filtering through the soil to the water table. The constant movement of water means that once a pollutant gets in to our water cycle, it can move throughout the entire watershed very easily.

So, what exactly is a watershed? A watershed is all the land (and everything on top of it) in a given area over which water collects and flows to a common waterbody such as a large river or a lake. In Barry county we have five major watersheds: Thornapple, Coldwater, Gun, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

Pollutants on the land can be carried to streams, rivers, and lakes by rain. This polluted runoff impacts the rest of the watershed downstream. In this way, different land uses and management decisions can have big impacts on the quality of the water we all use. The Thornapple River Watershed provides water for agricultural irrigation, recreation, wildlife habitat, and more. Small choices in our daily lives, especially in our home and land management decisions, can go a long way in keeping our water clean.

Land uses can vary greatly across a watershed: some are heavily developed and urbanized, while others, are primarily rural agricultural land.  Each land use type has its own unique challenges when it comes to watershed health. The good news is that by understanding our water resources and with a little planning, we can manage our watersheds so that they stay clean and healthy for future generations to come.

CRP Enrollment now open

If you have been thinking about installing conservation practices on your farm land, now is the time to do it! As of June 4th, 2018 the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has opened enrollment for the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Background: CRP was established in 1985 as a voluntary land conservation program to help landowners and farmers protect water quality and reduce soil erosion all while providing great habitat for wildlife. It has been hugely successful and is currently the largest private-land conservation program in the U.S.

How it works: Interested landowners and farmers can apply for enrollment in CRP by visiting their local FSA office now through August 17th, 2018. To be eligible, landowners must have owned or operated the land for at least the last 12 months and the land must have been in agricultural production for four of the six years from 2008 to 2013. With the Continuous CRP, landowners are automatically accepted if they meet all eligibility criteria; there is no competitive bidding as with other conservation programs. By enrolling in CRP, landowners agree to a contract with FSA to keep the land in the program for the next 10-15 years. Every year, program participants receive a rental payment on the acres enrolled in the program to help offset the income lost by taking that ground out of agricultural production. FSA also provides up to 50% cost-share for the installation of these practices. In addition, the Barry Conservation District has a program in place to provide additional financial support to supplement CRP cost share in the Mud Creek, Fish Creek and Milbourn Drain sub-watersheds. The practices eligible for additional support include grass waterways, filter strips, and riparian buffers.

The Low-down: CRP is instrumental in protecting soil and water quality, as well as providing habitat for wildlife. This program provides landowners an option to protect habitat and the environment without losing out on income by pulling tillable land out of production. If you have thought about enrolling with CRP, now is the time.

Our Watershed

Many of us may be familiar with the Thornapple River. The entire watershed, however, includes not only the Thornapple River and its tributaries, but all the land that drains into them.

Like all watersheds, the Thornapple is not defined by township or county boundaries. The TRW covers approximately 422,545 acres of land in five counties: Barry, Eaton, Kent, Allegan and Ionia (see map). The primary land use in the TRW is agricultural (52%), with a significant amount of open space and forested land as well (38.7%).

So, what does this mean for our water? Pre-settlement Barry County was a much different landscape than it is today. Almost completely forested, the watershed did not face the challenges with water quality that it does now. While the TRW does not face many of the issues that more urban or developed counties are seeing, rural land use still comes with its own unique set of challenges to maintaining healthy watersheds.

It is no secret that healthy watersheds lead to happy and healthy people. The Thornapple River Watershed provides many opportunities for residents. The nutrient-rich soils of the TRW provide fertile ground for farming, a vital industry in Barry County. Additionally, the TRW has a rich history as a local favorite for recreation. On hot summer days, you can find rafts of canoes or tubes floating the winding stretches of the Thornapple, or you may see anglers casting into the cool, fast-flowing tributaries that make up the TRW. The watershed is also host to many species of fish, birds and other wildlife that are dependent on clean water and provide fantastic hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.

With the abundance of water available here in Barry County, it is easy to take it for granted. It is up to the whole community to ensure that Barry County and the TRW are kept clean and healthy so that they continue to support our needs for many generations to come.

Our Watershed Part 2

Given it’s generally rural landscape, Barry County has been able to avoid the headline-making pollution issues that are coming out of the more developed areas of Michigan. With the lack of large manufacturing and industrial operations, we don’t see dumps leaking toxic plumes of chemicals, and with so many homes getting water through personal wells, we don’t have the lead issues of some big municipal water supplies. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to take our water quality seriously. What we do see here in Barry County are other sources of water quality degradation that may not always grab our attention as quickly. Over the years, the Thornapple River Watershed has seen it’s fair share of pollution. The three big players adversely affecting our water are sediment, nutrients and pathogens. While excess dirt and nutrients in our water may not seem like a big deal, these things lead to environmental and health concerns that can be just as detrimental as any industrial chemicals may be. So where do these pollutants come from? And why are they a problem?

Let’s start with sediment. Sediment can enter our waterways through various sources. These can include erosion on stream banks caused by construction, water flow, heavy rain events, field tillage methods or even areas with decreased vegetation from animal use. This is an issue, because excess sediment leads to higher turbidity, or lower clarity in our water. This can raise water temperatures, decrease visibility, and cover natural gravel streambeds. All of these things are detrimental to the wildlife that use these waters and excess sediment can build up and fill in channels, leading to flooding or decreased navigability for human uses.

Nutrients are another big pollutant issue within the TRW. Mainly in the form of excess nitrogen and phosphorous. Just like sediment, nutrients can come from a variety of sources. These can include over-fertilizing our lawns and fields, excess waste from leaking, overflowing, or failing septic systems and municipal waste systems, and even livestock and wild animal waste. Excess nutrients can lead to increased aquatic weed growth as well as an increase in algal blooms, which can sometimes be toxic to humans and wildlife. Nutrients in our surface waters can also mean nutrients in our ground or drinking water. Specifically, high levels of nitrates, a form of nitrogen, can have adverse health effects on humans if consumed.

The last pollutant of significant concern in Barry County and across most of the state are pathogens. The most prevalent of which is E. coli. Many of us have heard of E. coli and know that at certain levels, it can cause illness, especially in the very young and old. E. coli is found in the intestines of animals and humans and can enter water through their waste.

Though it may seem like a formidable list of problems with our water quality, there are many ways we can address these pollutant issues. That being said, it will take widespread effort and involvement from all of us to effectively mitigate these pollutants and ensure clean water for our future generations. Next month, we will look at what is currently being done to monitor and address non-point source pollution in the Thornapple River Watershed and you will be able to learn more about the groups and agencies that are here to assist you with being a good steward of our water. In parting, remember that clean water is everybody’s responsibility and it is up to us all as a community to protect these valuable resources.

Protecting Our Watershed

So how exactly can we protect our water? The first step to protecting something is to be informed, both on the threats and ways to lessen those threats. Many watershed and conservation groups do this through a watershed management plan. A watershed management plan is a compilation of info on a given watershed including the uses, threats, solutions to those threats, and a plan of action on how to go forward with improving water quality. Producing a watershed management plan can take quite a long time due to the amount of data that is needed.

The next step to protecting our water resources is implementation. This can include monitoring, data collection, educating the public, providing support through cost share programs, providing knowledge on best management practices and even hands-on clean-up efforts like the yearly river clean-up. There are many resources available to organizations and individuals to help them protect our water. These sources can include grants that help cover the cost of data collection and project implementation as well as groups and organizations that can help provide info and knowledge such as the Thornapple River Watershed Council or your local Conservation District.

Here in Barry County, we have information available to us through the Thornapple River Watershed Management Plan (TRWMP). The TRWMP provides local conservation groups, such as the Barry Conservation District, with a single compilation of data on the Thornapple. Data for the TRWMP was collected throughout the 90’s and 00’s and the TRWMP was completed and approved in 2016. The data in the TRWMP was collected by the Barry Conservation District, MDEQ, MDNR, and many local volunteers. With a TRWMP in hand, we are now able to act to protect our water quality.

With a watershed management plan as a guide, we can actively protect our water resources. This is done through boots on the ground conservation efforts. This action or implementation can come in many forms and can be very broad or very focused depending on the issues being targeted and the funding sources. As we’ve read in past articles, non-point source pollutants tend to be the biggest cause of concern in the Thornapple. This was determined via the TRWMP, and the Barry Conservation District has begun addressing these problems through an implementation grant.

This grant is currently trying to fix non-point source pollution in sub-watersheds in the headwaters of the Thornapple. The District is using education and outreach in addition to cost-share and planning assistance to help empower landowners to be good stewards of our water resources. This current implementation project is focused on reducing pollutants such as sediment and nutrients by helping homeowners and landowners manage their septic systems and land in ways that reduce runoff and pollution in our surface waters.

Cover Crops

Welcome back! This month’s issue of the Watering Hole is going to throw the spotlight on something other than water: Cover Crops.  However, believe it or not, cover crops can directly impact the quality of our water in a big way. In short, a cover crop is anything that is grown to protect and enhance the soil in the “off-season”, or at a time when a cash crop is not being currently grown. Most of the time in this area that means winter wheat or ryegrass, but there are many other options. These plants can provide a whole host of benefits for soil and water health, while at the same time reducing inputs or providing a secondary food option for livestock. While the payoff of cover crops can be exponential over time, there are also a few cautionary points to take note of before embarking on the cover crop journey. Now, let’s dive on in and look at the what, when and how of cover crops.

Whether you are a farmer trying to improve their soil or just an average citizen concerned about our natural resources, cover crops have a benefit that impacts you. The main benefits of cover crops are improved soil health, better water quality, and economic benefits for the farm operation. Cover crops improve soil health by increasing organic matter in the form of plant residue, fixing or adding vital plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, and acting as a compaction buster. Research has even shown improvements in beneficial soil microbes when cover crops are used long-term, which can improve soil structure by creating larger soil particles called macroaggregates.

Cover crops improve water quality as well by keeping live roots in the soil to hold it in place and reduce erosion. These live roots also create air spaces in the soil, so more water soaks into the ground and is filtered through the soil rather than running off and carrying sediment and nutrients into our lakes and streams. We can’t say it enough- keeping nutrients out of our water keeps it cleaner and safer and reduces algae and nuisance aquatic weed growth!

Although there is an initial cost to buy the seed and plant it, using cover crops can pay off when used consistently in a farmer’s rotation. Cover crops provide a source of “green manure” and unlock or fix otherwise unavailable nutrients in the soil, which means less of a reliance on pricey supplemental nutrients and fertilizer. Cover crops can provide an additional economic benefit to many farms in the form of livestock feed. Most producers choose to take advantage of this by grazing their livestock through cover crop fields of anything from ryegrass to turnips, but chopping and harvesting for feed is also an option with many cover crops.

As with everything, there are also potential downsides with cover crops that should be considered before planting. Timing when to plant a cover crop can be tricky because traditional methods require planting post-harvest of a cash crop but with enough time for the cover crop to adequately grow. This often leads to limited options of when and what to plant, particularly given the unpredictability of Michigan weather. Even if you get your harvest done in time, it may be too wet to get traditional equipment on the field or too cold/dry for proper germination. Timing the termination of cover crops that don’t winter kill can also be tricky because you don’t want to terminate them too early but need to allow enough time to ensure successful die-off as well as keep plenty of time open to plant in the spring.

The last limiting factor of cover crops is start-up cost, which can vary greatly depending on what and how you plant. Cover crops reduce inputs and costs in your operation, but you can expect it to take 5-7 years of consistent cover crop rotation before you reap the full benefits.

Certainly there are some challenges with getting started in cover crops, but the great news is that there are new technologies to help overcome some of these hurdles. Let’s dig a little deeper on how to meet the challenges of getting these crops in the dirt.

The most traditional method of planting cover crops is to plant them with a drill or planter like you would your normal cash crops. This option requires some form of tillage or seed bed prep like you would do for beans or corn. The advantage of using traditional planting methods after harvest is the farmer already has all the equipment and know-how needed, but it is the most labor-intensive, most disruptive to the soil, and the most limiting as far as when and what you can plant. For example, often corn doesn’t come off the fields until late October or November, and with Michigan’s unpredictable weather that may be too late to get most cover crops established. Opting to use a no-till drill instead of a standard seed drill or planter may save some time by drilling right into the crop residue and disturbs the soil less while you are waiting for the cover crop to establish. The downside to the method is it can still be a tight planting window, which limits seed options and it also requires a no-till drill, which may not be in everyone’s equipment shed.

It is also possible to simply broadcasting the seed after harvest. Local farmers have been successful in planting cover crops by broadcasting them with manure applications, or simply out of a spin-cast spreader on the back of an ATV. This method can be done quickly without large equipment or lots of fuel inputs, it doesn’t disturb the soil as much, and it reduces compaction from heavier equipment. The biggest downside to broadcasting seed after harvest is that you don’t get as good soil to seed contact as you would with traditional planting methods and it may slow the germination down too much in an already tight planting window.

You are probably thinking that all these options just cut it too close to risk trying to plant a crop after harvest and get it established before cold weather sets in. Well, hold on to your hats because there are two great methods to get cover crops into standing crops before harvest and get them going with amazing results. Inter-seeding is a method that uses either a tow-behind implement called an inter-seeder or modified high-clearance sprayers that blow seed out of tubes that hang down in between the crop rows. Either method is going to give you better planting options, but they do mean more trips across the field and require specialized equipment.

The last method, and one recently highlighted at a local field day in Barry County, is aerial application of cover crop seed. This method works just like hiring a pilot to spray fungicide or herbicide. It can be done very quickly and efficiently, right into standing crops. This means less equipment on the field, less time and fuel inputs from the farmer, and seed is put on the field with plenty of time to germinate and begin growing. You may be thinking that you also don’t get great soil-to-seed contact compared to drilling or cultivating, however in many circumstances, leaf and stalk debris after harvest can help cover and incubate the seed well enough to get a good catch. The downsides of aerial seeding are that you must find an experienced pilot that can do the job and it can be slightly more expensive then do-it-yourself methods, but it may be more feasible than you think.

Once you have decided how to plant, you will need to decide what to plant, and there are many options! Luckily the online Midwest Cover Crop Council Crop Decision Tool can help you find a cover crop to fit your farming style. Just enter in the timing of planting, your goals, and planting methods and the online tool will show you which crops will work best. Cover crops that may be suggested generally fall into the categories of brassicas, grasses, legumes, or mixes.

Brassicas include plants like radishes, turnips and rapeseed. Brassicas are generally great for foraging or grazing sources for livestock and they generally have larger tap roots that can help bust up soil compaction and increase water infiltration. Producers should take note that brassicas can be a bit more sensitive to residual herbicide from later applications. Most brassicas will also winter kill, so they may not provide as much cover on the ground come spring.

Cover crop grasses include annual rye grass and cereal grains such as cereal rye, oats and wheat. Like brassicas, many grasses can be part of a grazing system for livestock owners. Most grasses can also be chopped and bailed for livestock. Grasses, especially annual rye, tend to have great root systems for busting soil compaction, holding soil in place, and reducing erosion on fields. One thing to take note of is that in the spring, some grasses can begin to grow quickly and can get out of hand fast. Careful planning is needed to time the burn down if using herbicides to terminate these cover crops.

Legume cover crops include plants like clover, winter peas and hairy vetch. Legumes are great at “fixing” nitrogen- which means converting it into a form that can be utilized by other crops. Some options of legumes won’t provide great compaction busting or erosion control when compared to other cover crop categories.

Last, but not least, are cover crop mixes, which are a combination of any or all the previously mentioned categories. With a cover crop mix you get more varied benefits across the board. Where one type of crop may fall short, another may pick up the slack so that both plants are mutually benefiting each other as well as achieving more of your goals. The things to watch out for when planting a mixture is that application can be a bit less even when applying different size seeds at the same time and the prices for mixtures will generally be quite a bit more when compared to planting a single variety.

Soil health and water quality are important to us all and it’s up to us to protect them.  Cover crops are a great way to address these issues while still looking out for a farm’s bottom line.