When a Farmland Spring Gives Up its Secrets

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I find springs—those places where groundwater exposes itself to the sunlight of its own accord—fascinating. There’s something special about seeing firsthand an entity that’s recently been lurking underground in dark mysterious places, flowing from who knows where and through who knows what. Northeast Iowa farmer Jeff Klinge shares that fascination. As he told me in a recent LSP podcast (episode 80), his interest was piqued when as a child his parents took him to a nearby trout hatchery where Big Spring, the biggest cold water spring in that state, emerges from the ground like some sort of upside-down waterfall. Over the past four decades, that interest has evolved from mere curiosity to a major motivation for the way Klinge farms.

“Yes, I was interested in the trout,” he told me as we stood on his crop and livestock farm eight miles from Big Spring on a stormy June afternoon. “But I was really interested in the spring. And then I found out our home farm was in the Big Spring basin, and so it made me think that what we do on this farm affects the water that comes out of Big Spring.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to make a direct connection between farming practices and their impact on the environment. This is particularly true when it comes to the effect crop and livestock production has on groundwater, which even scientists will admit keeps a lot of secrets from we surface dwellers.

But farmers and other rural residents in Jeff Klinge’s region southeast of the Iowa community of Decorah have a better idea than most about the relationships between farming systems and water quality. That’s because the Big Spring Basin is one of the most well known and studied sites in the U.S. when it comes to information on groundwater contamination in a landscape dominated by porous limestone rock, otherwise known as karst.

Research in the basin, which is named after the spring that emerges at the DNR hatchery before emptying into the Turkey River, has turned up some bad news: since the 1960s nitrate levels in the basin’s water have been a consistent pollution problem. This is a direct result of more and more of the watershed’s land area being planted to corn, which relies heavily on nitrogen fertilizer. These corn plantings have come at the expense of pastures, woods, small grains and even hay fields—all plant systems that help maintain good water quality.

As Big Spring Trout Hatchery fisheries biologist Gary Siegwarth explained to me in the podcast, he sees the spring, as well as the nearby Turkey River, as barometers of what is taking place on the surrounding landscape. These days, that barometer is calling for a good chance of cloudy water.

“For example, we had just a little over an inch of rain last night, and even with that relatively small amount of rain that water looks so turbid,” he said while checking out the spring and the river at the hatchery. The spring had the transparency of washing machine gray water, and the river was chocolate brown. “That’s not sustainable,” said Siegwarth.

Over the years, the Big Spring Demonstration Project has worked with farmers to reduce nitrogen fertilizer contamination through such practices as conservation tillage, diverse crop rotations, better fertility management and well-managed grazing systems. It’s had some success, but more work is needed if the ground and surface water in the area is to approach the quality levels needed for a healthy watershed.

That’s why on the day I was in the area, Siegwarth was participating in an event sponsored by Practical Farmers of Iowa and Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, among others. The field day helped farmers see for themselves the direct relationships between land use and water quality. But it was also held so that Siegwarth could learn what farmers like Jeff Klinge are doing to keep places like Big Spring cleaner.

“Whenever I do something on the farm, it’s because of the Big Spring Basin,” said Klinge, who recently dropped soybeans from his cropping system because they were too erosive in this hilly part of Iowa.

During the past few decades Klinge and his wife Deb Tidwell have taken several steps to reduce harmful runoff, including diversifying their crop rotation and converting to a certified organic system. They and the other farmers who are utilizing sustainable crop and livestock systems in the area made it clear during the field day that they want to do their best to be good stewards of places like Big Spring, but that they face significant economic, political, even cultural, challenges.

“It definitely made me feel good that these people are out there—they’re trying to do the right thing,” Siegwarth said afterwards. “Now how do we connect them further and help them battle against the bigger machine?”

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