(This article was written by Drake Larsen on behalf of the conservation district commissioners: Mark Tjelmeland, Steve Fales, Sue Upchurch, Dale Farnham and Jerry Radke; and assistant commissioners Drake Larsen, Cindy Hildebrand, Amber Anderson Mba and Erwin Klaas.)

Iowa Soil and Water Conservation Week —Sunday, April 27 through Sunday, May 4 — is a time for us to join together and celebrate the stewardship of our natural resources. Conservation Week helps to remind us all of the responsibility each person has to conserve our natural resources and to improve upon them for future generations. The theme for 2014 is Digging Deeper: Mysteries in the Soil.

Soil is many things to many people. To the farmer, soil is where crops grow to feed people and animals. To the city resident, soil nurtures lawns and gardens and anchors majestic trees in our yards and parks. To the conservationist, soil supports a vast community of life that we are just beginning to understand. To the engineer, soil provides a solid foundation upon which to build. To the archaeologist, soil holds clues to past cultures. Soil does all of these things and more. Soil is made of life and soil makes life. It has been called the skin of the earth, and like our own skin, we can’t live without soil.

Iowa is a land of prosperous farms and agribusinesses, owing to a natural legacy of rich prairie soils. When the first farmers plowed the prairie, they found 14 to 16 inches of fertile topsoil. Today an average of only six to eight inches of topsoil remains. Generally, people think of soil as a resource that will always be there for us. However, through wind and water erosion, soil is exhaustible. While soil conservation is an issue of global importance, conservation responsibility rests at the local level with the citizens of a community.

Partners in Conservation

The people’s partner in conservation is the Story County Soil and Water Conservation District. Do you remember having seen us on the general election ballot? Our five-person board is elected on a non-partisan basis with commissioners serving four-year terms and with elections held in even-numbered years.

The conservation district helps to guide soil and water conservation programs in the county by determining how state and national programs, such as conservation cost-share and water quality projects, happen on the ground. True to the diversity of land uses in Story County, today’s district conservation board includes individuals with a range of expertise including farming, natural resources, education and urban conservation. The work of the conservation district and their partners can be seen all around Story County, whether you are in the city or country.

Story County has a rewarding mix of both agricultural and urban land uses that are linked by a mosaic of county and municipal green spaces. This mix offers residents access to a variety of education, recreation and conservation opportunities.

Hickory Grove Park, south of Colo, is Story County’s most popular recreation area, with over 70,000 visitors annually generating a county economic impact of nearly $6.5 million. The Hickory Grove watershed – the area of land where water from rain or snow all flows to the same place – is almost 5,000 acres, so there is quite a lot of land that impacts water quality for the 99 acre lake.

Hickory Grove was recently selected for a watershed improvement grant of $223,095 through the state Department of Agriculture. The work is led by the Story County Conservation Board and the conservation district was able to help by providing a source of matching funding required by the state. The district provided $10,000 for maintenance or upgrade of residential septic systems in the lake’s watershed. Other conservation work being planned includes overhaul to tile outlets near the lake and grazing improvements to fence cattle out of the streams flowing into the lake.

Succeeding in improving the water quality at Hickory Grove will take the combined efforts of all the residents living in the watershed. Watershed work reminds us that we all have a role to play in conserving the natural resources of Story County.

Everyone has a role

"When the land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land—when both end up better by reason of their partnership—then we have conservation."

-Iowa native Aldo Leopold

On the Farm

A primary goal of the conservation district is to support farmers through conservation cost-share programs like the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which offers financial and technical support for farmers to establish soil saving conservation practices such as stream buffers, terraces, wind breaks, cover crops and much more. The district also encourages farmers who have used good conservation practices routinely to consider the Conservation Stewardship Program which rewards long-term, whole farm planning. There are currently 39 farms enrolled in CSP in Story County.

Conservation support is also available through numerous state and local programs. The district invites farmers and landowners to come by the NRCS office in Nevada to learn more about the opportunities open to them. Taken together, local, state and federal programs offer farmers a diverse conservation toolbox to choose from.

In the City

Just as they do on the farm, conservation practices on nonagricultural land can help control soil erosion and improve water quality, as well as provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife and beautify the landscape. Backyard conservation can include practices like rain gardens, composting and mulching, and native prairie and tree plantings. These practices are easy to use and can make your backyard more enjoyable.

Iowa’s abundant natural resources have played an important part in our prosperity and history. We must continue to conserve our resources to ensure a thriving future. Homeowners, farmers, government and business leaders, school teachers and students can use Conservation Week as a moment to reflect on the importance of soil and natural resources.