Area conservation projects get federal funds

Author: Margaret Fosmoe, South Bend Tribune

A project designed to reduce agricultural runoff and improve farming practices in the St. Joseph River Valley has received $6.8 million in federal funding through the 2014 Farm Bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money will be available for farmers to apply for in 14 counties in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. That whole area is part of the St. Joseph River watershed, ultimately draining into Lake Michigan.

Through cost sharing, the project encourages farmers to plant cold-weather cover crops, practice no-till farming and improve irrigation to reduce runoff of sediment and fertilizer, said Marcy Colclough, senior planner with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, based in Benton Harbor.

The money will be available over a five-year period. Farmers should contact their county soil and water conservation district office to apply.

“Experts will come out to a (participating) farm and see what practices would be best,” Colclough said.

The project has been underway for several years, but this new funding will expand the scope of the effort.

In addition, the Farm Bill provided $1.5 million for a project to plant cover crops and create new-style ditches in Kosciusko, Jasper and Howard counties in Indiana. Scientists with the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative are leading that project, and will study the results to determine whether the techniques merit using in major river watersheds. The funding will help continue an existing project in Kosciusko County, and start projects in the other two.

“We’ll demonstrate whether these practices can make a difference for water quality and still work for farmers,” said Jennifer Tank, a Notre Dame biology professor and acting director of the Environmental Change Initiative.

The cover crop, generally rye grass, is planted and grown during the colder months to reduce runoff of soil and nutrients into local streams. The project also involves installing “two-stage” ditches, essentially creating flood plains on both sides of ditches to increase the amount of water that can be handled during storms.

“That prevents excess nutrients and sediments from entering the stream,” Tank said.

The Kosciusko County project is along the Shatto Ditch in the Tippecanoe River basin near Mentone. It’s a small watershed of about 3,000 acres. Notre Dame students and faculty will regularly take and test water and soil samples along the ditch. Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington also are part of the project.

If the demonstration projects work in smaller watersheds, they eventually could be used in major river basins, such as the Mississippi, Tank said.