Miranda Haes, watershed coordinator for the Lower Skunk River Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, was recently presented a Circle of Excellence award from the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance as part of the third annual Iowa Watershed Awards program.
Haes is being honored this year along with five other watershed coordinators who are also receiving IAWA Iowa Watershed Awards for their many contributions and steadfast dedication to improving water quality across the state.
“With Earth Day on April 22, it’s a great time to recognize watershed coordinators — the unsung local heroes who work hard every day to implement conservation practices to improve water quality,” says Sean McMahon, IAWA executive director. “Miranda is helping farmers and landowners meet local community goals while also simultaneously advancing the objectives of the statewide Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”
Devoted to water quality
Even before graduating from the University of Iowa in 2015 with a degree in geography and environmental studies, Haes saw jobs advertised for work on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and knew she wanted to be part of the effort.
Haes, who went back to college in her 30s, jokes that she calls herself a tree hugger. She and her husband live in a passive solar-heated house that also uses geothermal energy. “I’m an environmentalist at heart, and water has always been important to me,” she says.
In November, she will have served four years as watershed coordinator, based at the Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District office at Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa. “I thought this was something I could do to help the environment, and this is where it’s brought me,” she says. “I feel very lucky. I love my job. I really enjoy what I do.”
The top priority in her project is reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in streams in the 135,000 acres of the watershed. About 46% of that land is in row crops, with over 50% in pasture, trees and the Conservation Reserve Program.
Better nutrient management
The area already has many terraces, livestock ponds and sediment control basins, so Haes has helped farmers find cost-share funding for edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and constructed wetlands, and for planting cover crops. The project also supports improved fertilizer management through practices like splitting nitrogen fertilizer application from fall to spring and variable-rate nitrogen and phosphorus applications.
“The interest level in cover crops has increased every year,” she says. In 2019, cover crop seeding grew by 2,500 acres and now accounts for about 9% of the acres in the watershed. She says interest in other conservation measures is also building.
One of the farm owners Haes has visited on his family’s land in Van Buren County is John Whitaker, executive director of Conservation Districts of Iowa. “Miranda can connect with people, and that’s one of the best things you need in a coordinator,” Whitaker says. “She talks to farmers. She’s not afraid to go out and look at a problem you’ve got. She’s open to new ideas and trying to find solutions that will work.”
Partnering with others
Haes works with a long list of partners, including other soil and water conservation districts in Jefferson, Lee, and Van Buren counties. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical support, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship plays an administrative role. Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn, Iowa Pork Producers Association and Pheasants Forever are other partners.
To help maintain momentum for this work, Haes will receive funding through the Iowa Watershed Award to apply to the Lower Skunk River Water Quality Project, as well as funding for her own professional development.