Nutrient Runoff Isn't Only An Agriculture Problem

Unique pattern of nutrient load tells story in this rural and urban watershed.

Published on: Nov 30, 2012

Harold Thompson works with the Eagle Creek watershed on the northwest side of Indianapolis. The long-time soil conservation expert says the watershed includes both rural farmland and also includes runoff from suburban and urban areas. That makes it rather unique, and makes studying the watershed a chance to learn about who actually contributes to non-point source solution.

To this point, most people think of and blame farmers when they think of hypoxia due to nutrient overloading in the Gulf of Mexico. This condition results in a lack of oxygen for fish and other species in the water there.

While some of the runoff and nutrient load does come from agriculture, some comes from urban and suburban areas as well, and studies through the Eagle Creek Watershed project show why. Some of the pollution problems occur once the water is past the farmland and reaches the urban and suburban areas, Thompson says. Overflow of sanitary sewers during rain events or other problems with waste disposal systems contribute to contamination issues.

Committed to no-till system: Jack Maloney, center, believes his no-till system is good for the environment and for higher yields.
Committed to no-till system: Jack Maloney, center, believes his no-till system is good for the environment and for higher yields.

Jack Maloney and Mike Starkey farm in the middle of the watershed. Both have been committed to a system of no-till farming, using cover crops and other approaches, on the sizable amount of land in the middle of the watershed. Their methods help reduce runoff and actually clean up nutrients out of the water coming to them from farther up the watershed where farmers tend to use conventional methods.

"What happens is that the water comes to use with nutrients in it. Leaving our lands it actually has less nutrients than when it arrived," Maloney says. "Then when it leaves our lands and goes on down through the suburban and urban parts of the watersheds, it picks up nutrient contest again."

Extensive testing as part of the watershed project have verified this trend.

Maloney and Starkey intend to keep doing their part. Both are sold on their no-till systems, which involve a variety of practices, not just no-till.