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WATER QUALITY: The Upper Iowa River is one of nine distinct watersheds across Iowa, which will serve as project sites for the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Bear Creek improvements show results

Iowa Learning Farms: Investments in infrastructure and conservation are paying.

By Jamie Benning

Unlike many of the other watersheds in the Iowa Watershed Approach Project, landowners, farmers and partner organizations in the Upper Iowa River Watershed will be building upon recent experience and positive impact of installing practices to reduce flooding and improve water quality.

From 1999 to 2013, the Bear Creek Watershed project was active in northern Winneshiek and Allamakee counties. The goal of the project was to reduce damages in the watershed from floodwater and sediment deposits to maintain high-quality water for the Bear Creek trout streams and improve the area’s recreational opportunities.

As a part of that project, 19 water retention structures were installed. Four of the structures replaced bridges and culverts with redesigned structures that use the road to hold back and slowly release floodwater. Efforts were also made to promote conservation farming practices that reduce soil loss and retain water on the landscape to extend the longevity of the structures. After these projects were completed, county employees reported far fewer instances of road washouts.

Investments upstream paying off
“The investments in upstream infrastructure are paying off for landowners and citizens downstream in reduced flooding, road damage, drowned fields and streambank erosion,” says Lee Bjerke, Winneshiek County engineer.

Residents are pleased with the improvements. Local anglers were happy to see that after a heavy rain, Bear Creek waters become clearer and ready for fishing much faster than other area trout streams outside the watershed. Farmers have also shared that the structures have reduced the frequency of floodplain fence damage, saving them time and materials on fence repair.

WATERSHED APPROACH: This map of the Upper Iowa Watershed shows priority areas that will receive financial and technical assistance through the watershed’s water-quality protection project.

In 2016, severe floods caused property damage in other parts of Winneshiek County demonstrating a need to continue flood prevention efforts beyond Bear Creek. The Upper Iowa River watershed project was formed. Project coordinator Matt Frana is leading the five-year project that builds on the momentum started in Bear Creek to install practices in four priority sub-watersheds: Ten Mile Creek, North Canoe Creek, Canoe Creek and Coon Creek. While education and promotion of the project is in the early stages, interest in the UIR watershed project has already been high.

Individual effort makes a difference
“I’m often surprised at the number of people calling and asking if there is anything they can do to help, even though they may not have ideal project locations,” Frana says. “By adding rain barrels, native prairie plots and rain gardens to their property, people can help retain water in the landscape. Although these practices may seem like a drop in the bucket, cumulatively over a large area they can make a difference.”

Early in the project, local landowners have contacted Frana to see if they can install ponds and water and sediment control basins.

This spring, Frana started to investigate potential project locations to see if they can start the survey and design process on ideal project sites. He will continue this process for the next several months. Landowners in the priority sub-watersheds are encouraged to contact Frana to learn if they are a good fit for the financial and technical assistance available as a part of the UIR.

Contact Frana at the Winneshiek Soil and Water Conservation District office at 563-382-4352, ext. 3, or

Benning is the manager of the ISU Extension Water Quality Program.

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