By Jackie Hartling Stolze, Iowa Flood Center
They couldn’t stop the flood, but they could slow it down.
Tim Sandeen remembers the bad old days in the Soap Creek Watershed. When he was a teenager, he and his friends would drive down to Soap Creek after a big rain to look at the damage. “The water would be gushing across the road and big ol’ fish would be flopping around,” he says. Floods regularly took out roads and bridges, destroyed crops, and washed out topsoil.
Those days are gone. With help from their Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) representative Fred Hainline, the farmers of Soap Creek banded together in the 1980s to develop a flood mitigation plan for their watershed.
Their idea was to capture and slow down water from major rainstorms in ponds, water and sediment control basins, and other conservation projects built throughout the watershed. In the process, they reduced damage to crops, roads, bridges, and more, while also improving water quality and creating new water recreation areas.
In 2010, the Iowa Flood Center partnered with the Soap Creek group as part of the Iowa Watersheds Project (IWP), a statewide flood mitigation and water-quality improvement effort. The project ended in 2016, to be followed up by the $96.7M Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA). Both projects received funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to voluntarily engage farmers and others in watersheds across Iowa to build a more flood-resilient state.
But the Soap Creek farmers and landowners got there first, and they continue to lead Iowa in flood mitigation efforts.
Farmers Carl Miller, Ray More, and Mervin McDanel served on the first Soap Creek Watershed Board, and they carry on that work today. Miller, who is now in his 80s, farms along South Soap Creek near Unionville. “The country’s rough down here,” he says, “and the soil erodes real easy.” He and his neighbors saw significant damage to their land after every big rain. A four- or five-inch rain could destroy a crop, taking the topsoil with it.
“There’s only so much dirt,” says Sandeen, who is also a farmer and a member of the Soap Creek Watershed Board. He also has a large pond on his property. “You have to take care of what you have,” he adds.
Miller, too, has a farm pond on his land, one of 135 structures in the basin, which spreads across four counties (Appanoose, Davis, Monroe, and Wapello) in Southeast Iowa. Miller is a modest man who doesn’t brag about his own foresight.
“We just started in and went to work on it, and continued right on,” Miller says.
Sandeen, however, is proud of his neighbors and not afraid to say so. “They knew there was a need,” he says. “It’s unbelievable that you would even have the nerve or fortitude to even try to put something like that together.”
He adds, “Those three guys — Miller, More, and McDanel — they’re the ones who need a pat on the back.”
The Soap Creek project is an amazing success story. At times over the years, the money dried up, and occasionally people got discouraged. But the leaders of the Soap Creek project became experts in scrounging for funding and persevering in pursuit of their vision. New members joined the board, but the vision stayed strong.
“We rarely have any disagreements, because we all have the same goals,” says board member Jerry Parker. He believes in the long-term vision and funding viability of the project. “There’s always going to be something coming along,” Parker says. “Just don’t give up on it.”
Ray More 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.
Last fall, the Iowa Flood Center and local partners organized a tour of the Soap Creek Watershed. More than 75 people from around the state turned out on Sept. 12 for a 50-mile bus trip that took them through this beautiful rolling landscape, visiting six farm ponds and seeing several other conservation practices throughout the watershed.