We asked fellow Iowans who have experience in the fields of natural resources, either as professionals or amateurs, to contribute an essay related to one of the main Iowa Master Conservationist Program topics. The following essay was contributed by Dr. Matt Helmers. Matt is Associate Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer in the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering in the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. He specializes in agricultural drainage research.
The Importance of Living and Working within Nature’s Cycle
We are in a day and age where there is increased concern about the impacts of humans’ activities on the environment. This is especially the case on agricultural landscapes within the state of Iowa. Iowa has one of the most adapted and altered landscapes in the United States. Two hundred years ago much of Iowa was covered by perennial tallgrass prairie and wetlands—ecological systems best adapted to the region’s higher precipitation periods during the spring and fall. Today, much of the state is covered with annual row crops. Corn and soybeans use little water in the spring and fall and this lower water usage during these high precipitation periods increases the chance that water “leaks” out of the system as surface water runoff or subsurface drainage. Each drop of water that “leaks” out of the system takes important nutrients and soil particles with it. The result is loss of soil and natural fertility, and impaired water bodies from our small creeks flowing through the major tributaries to the Gulf of Mexico. Our dominant agricultural row crop structure is a “leaky” system compared to the more perennial vegetation system of the past. By understanding systems that were naturally adapted to a geographical area we can better understand the impacts of modern practices and better develop methods that minimize environmental impacts.
Our natural resources are precious and one of the most vital natural resources in Iowa is our soil. As a result we need to minimize soil degradation and soil loss and in doing so we can hopefully improve the quality of water within the state and the region. In many areas of Iowa the natural landscape was a mosaic of tallgrass prairies and wetlands. These systems used water in such a way to minimize water loss and provided treatment of water through the wetland systems. We can learn from these types of systems. Reintegration of perennial vegetation where possible and creating water quality treatment wetlands can have multiple environmental benefits; not only can these systems provide water quality treatment but they can also increase biodiversity on the landscape. Reintegration of perennial vegetation could take many forms from buffers to increased pasture land. In addition, another form of perenniality could be achieved by increasing living ground cover during times of the year when our row-crop systems are not growing. This could be in the form of cover crops. Because it would not be possible to return all the land back to pre-development conditions there is a need to locate vegetation or wetlands where they can have the greatest environmental benefit. By understanding that the natural system in our area consisted of year round cover with water use and ground protection during susceptible periods of high rainfall in the Spring and Fall we can work to achieve a system that more closely mimics the natural system and in doing so we can hopefully have a positive environmental impact.