By Jackie Stolze
In far southeast Iowa, a group of farmers and landowners is leading the state in flood mitigation efforts. The Iowa Flood Center and local partners organized a tour of the Soap Creek Watershed on Sept. 12 that attracted more than 75 people from around the state. The tour took participants on a 50-mile bus journey through this beautiful rolling landscape, visiting six farm ponds and seeing several other conservation practices throughout the watershed.
For decades, farmers in the Soap Creek Watershed watched the creek flood almost every time they got a decent sized rain, taking out crops, topsoil, roads, and bridges. In the 1980s, they banded together to do something about it.
They couldn’t stop the rain, but they could slow it down. Carl Miller, one of the original members of the Soap Creek Watershed Board and a farmer near Unionville, says that he and his neighbors were seeing significant damage to their land. “The country’s rough down here, and the soil erodes real easy,” Miller explains. His neighbor and fellow board member Tim Sandeen agrees. A four- or five-inch rain could destroy a crop.
In 1986, with the help of their Natural Resources Conservation Service representative Fred Hainline, they organized the Soap Creek Watershed Board. Hainline was a visionary who saw the damage that happened almost every year, and he had contacts statewide and understood how to get funding. Plus, “he never met a stranger,” Sandeen says. With Hainline’s guidance, Carl Miller, Ray Moore, Mervin McDaniel, and other landowners developed a plan to build more than 150 farm ponds in the Soap Creek Watershed. Their idea was to capture and slow down water from major rainstorms in ponds and other conservation practices built throughout the upper part of the basin. In the process, they reduced damage to crops, roads, bridges, and more, while also improving water quality and creating new water recreation areas.
Today, there are more 130 farm ponds and other conservation structures in the watershed, which stretches over four counties: Appanoose, Davis, Monroe, and Wapello. The Iowa Flood Center has been part of the effort since about 2011 through the Iowa Watersheds Project, which provided funding, hydrologic modeling, and a watershed plan.
Ray Moore says he’s proud of what he and the others have achieved in the Soap Creek Watershed. “It makes a guy feel good,” he says.