When Missouri’s Vandalia Lake registered atrazine levels of 89 parts per billion in 1996, it was difficult and expensive for the region’s water treatment plant to purify the water for drinking. A period of finger pointing ended when 16 active farmers in the watershed sat down with University of Missouri Extension water quality specialists Bob Broz and Dan Downing to talk about what was happening and find ways to reduce runoff.
Together, the group realized that two landowners who managed 60 to 65 percent of farmed land in the basin were on the same corn/soybean rotation. The two agreed to plant corn in alternate years, and by the following year atrazine diminished by 35 percent in the lake.
Collaborative planning in the Vandalia Watershed was driven by crisis. But community conversations after the crisis resulted in both remedial action and widespread commitment to new, long-term practices.
To reduce atrazine in the lake to a level safe for drinking (less than 3 parts per billion), area landowners also increased Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, constructed grassed waterways, planted field and stream buffers, and adopted two-pass pesticide application to reduce application rates. Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) advisors assisted.
“The voluntary, conversational approach we used is the most effective way I know to improve water quality and stream habitat for the long term,” said Broz, water planner and Missouri Farm Bureau 2013 Outstanding Service To Agriculture Award recipient.
“Local people are creating their own solutions.”
Watershed plans are now required by law in many places. They are also developed by non-government organizations to guide large-scale restoration and protection projects. Plans vary, but are typically anchored by a nine point U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) framework.
Outside of crisis-driven planning, Broz and colleagues develop routine watershed plans with communities. Their process begins with public meetings where they explain the work, why it may be important to residents, and why proactive action is needed.
Step by step, they lead residents through conversations that bring local issues and workable strategies to light.
“I ask who will be on a committee to pull a watershed plan together,” says Broz. “There is a tremendous amount of information available, so we work with professional partners to get information on soil type, weather conditions, cropping, and livestock. We look at local practices and options.”
The process takes six months to three years, during which leaders give attention to vulnerable areas, social readiness, funding, and a timeline.
“It’s possible to get to a solution whether we’re addressing a specific situation or developing a mandated plan,” says Broz, “but in both situations honesty and relationships are necessary to succeed.
“This has always been the case. Years ago, before we developed plans the way we do now, I went to farmers and asked what the issues are. They identified it head-on. ‘I’m doing this and it’s not working. What should I do?’ I created opportunities for them to say, ‘These are things I’d like to do…’”
“Watersheds,” explains Broz, “are made up of individual farms and fields. It boils down to what happens on each farm, but the balance tips and value is sustained when many adopt practices at the same time.”
CONVERSATION TIPS BALANCE TWICE IN VANDALIA
After Vandalia Lake stabilized, a second spike in atrazine prompted the treatment plant manager to call local farmers. In response, neighbors drove around until they found a field where corn had replaced buffers on land recently sold. They talked with the new landowners, who put the field back into grass and brought in cattle for income.
“Regardless of how planning is approached,” says Broz, “talk among neighbors is necessary.
“When people have connected around an issue they find it natural to lead—and issues close to home are motivating. In my experience, farmers are usually eager to learn from models forecasting how water will respond to new practices, and advisors can clarify where to work for biggest improvement with available dollars.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
“There are 96,000 miles of streams in Missouri,” notes Broz, “so individual effort is lost if we don’t work on these choices together.”
This observation carries weight coming from a man who has likely logged over 10,000 hours facilitating community decisions.
“We try to minimize regulation and encourage responsibility. As a result,” laughs Broz, “I often don’t get home until 11 p.m. because I’m standing in a parking lot talking with farmers. I tell them, ‘You may not get everything you want, but you will get something that’s acceptable to you.’
“Most recognize this is needed.”