Understanding watersheds: we are all part of the solution

By Steve Weisman

Even at age 67, every once in a while I get one of those “Ah-Ha” moments. You know, when you suddenly get this enlightenment of something you might have already known about, but not really understood. This past week I had one of those. Mike Hawkins, John Wills and I were visiting about water clarity and how much of an impact runoff has on our Iowa Great Lakes. We discussed the immensity of the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed, a total of approximately 90,631 acres! Wow!

That’s when it hit me. No matter where we live in the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed, each of us impacts it. So, a farmer in southern Minnesota, an acreage owner a few miles from West Okoboji, a homeowner on one of our lakes or a resident in one of our communities…we all directly impact the bodies of water in the Iowa Great Lakes

What does that really mean? If we are miles from a lake or stream, how can we have an impact on that water? What exactly is a watershed, and who cares? Here is a little background. First, there is the United States Geological Survey, a scientific agency for the United States government that studies just this: the country’s landscape, its natural resources and hazards that might threaten it.

Here is their definition of a watershed. A watershed is an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel. It is further explained in this way. A watershed consists of surface water–lakes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands–and all the underlying ground water. Larger watersheds contain many smaller watersheds. It all depends on the outflow point; all of the land that drains water to the outflow point is the watershed for that outflow location. Watersheds are important because the stream flow and the water quality of a river are affected by things, human-induced or not, happening in the land area “above” the river-outflow point.

Here in the Iowa Great Lakes watershed, the outflow point is where the water leaves Lower Gar. Everything uphill (mostly north) of that point to almost I-90 in southern Minnesota drains through our chain of lakes and leaves the area headed towards the Little Sioux River from that point.

Everything begins to happen when we have precipitation, whether it is rain or snow that falls on the ground. Some of that soaks into the ground, which helps support plant life. This plant life, depending on type and density, can slow down the runoff of excess water. Some water that infiltrates will remain in the shallow soil layer, where it will gradually move downhill, through the soil, and eventually enters the stream by seepage into the stream bank. Some of the water may infiltrate much deeper, recharging groundwater aquifers. Water may travel long distances or remain in storage for long periods before returning to the surface. At the same time, whatever has been placed on the soil such as fertilizer can affect the quality of the water that runs off.

Thinking specifically about the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed, sooner or later, all of the runoff from the 90,631 acres will impact our lakes! We all are part of what comes into our lakes. That is why it is so imperative that we all do what we can NOW to protect these waters. Once they reach the tipping point and become impaired waters, we may have nowhere left to go!

In 2010, the Dickinson Soil and Water Conservation District developed the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed Management Plan to help protect our waters. It’s meant to help individuals, public and private groups and government entities as they work on water quality projects. The bottom line: clean up the water flowing into and out of the lake system.

Although there are huge challenges facing all of us who live in the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed, there are so many opportunities to make water quality better. In visiting with Jim Sholly, who works for the Dickinson Soil and Water Conservation District as the watershed coordinator for the Iowa Great Lakes, there are so many things individuals and groups can do. Sholly says there is a wide range of water quality improvement practices for both rural and urban areas and that improvements can be made in almost any setting. No practice or change in behavior is too small to improve water quality in our lakes. These practices are important no matter if it is around the lake or miles from the lake. We all need to be part of the solution.

For more information about how you can be part of the clean water solution, give Sholly a call at (712)336-3782 ext. 3.

In a future article, we will look at what a local landowner is doing to help protect a portion of the east side of Big Spirit from agricultural runoff and to diminish the amount of sediment and unwanted nutrients entering the lake.