Nearly every major water body in Indiana has the potential to be impacted by agriculture. Nonpoint source pollution from these lands can affect our waterbodies to varying degrees as sediment, nutrients, and bacteria flow overland and through drainage tiles into ditches, streams, and rivers. As consumers, we depend upon Indiana’s producers for our food. We also depend upon them to use conservation best management practices to help keep our water resources fishable, swimmable, and potable. Personnel at conservation offices like Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Farm Service Agency, Resource Conservation and Development Councils, and nonprofit watershed organizations are available to assist producers in identifying best management practices that are both environmentally and economically practical. In some cases, funds may be available for the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) from USDA Farm Bill, U.S. EPA Clean Water Act, and Indiana Department of Natural Resources Lake and River Enhancement programs.
Tools for On the Farm
In order to ensure that a BMP is efficient in protecting and/or improving water quality, BMPs must be installed according to a recognized standard or specification. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS – a part of USDA) is one of the lead technical agencies involved in the implementation of conservation practices through the Farm Bill. Their Electronic Field Office Technical Guide (EFOTG) is a national manual of specifications for conservation BMPs, which has become the standard design reference for the planning and installation of agricultural BMPs. You can use this tool to learn about specific BMPs, or you might use it to determine specifications on a project to implement. This link will take you to the state map for Indiana, but you will need to click on the "Section IV" link after you've selected your county to find the most relevant information.
In addition to NRCS, the U.S. EPA has developed the National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture manual outlining agricultural best management practices that reduce sources of pollution, categorized by pollutant to be reduced. This is a great resource for those folks who are choosing BMPs and developing cost-share programs.
The Field Assessment for Water Resource Protection is a practical booklet by Purdue University that takes producers (and watershed coordinators!) through an assessment of current practices on a specific farm. Recommendations for water quality improvement are then presented for areas that need improvement.
The Clean Water Act Section 319 Agricultural Guidance for Indiana provides general program information, suggested BMPs, funding restrictions, definitions of basic terminology, and frequently asked questions related to the distribution of cost-share and demonstration funds for BMPs implemented on agricultural land. While geared toward Section 319 grantees, others may find it useful, too.
Tools for Drainage
At the time of European settlement, much of the landscape in northeastern and east-central Indiana was occupied by the Great Black Swamp and in the northwest, the Grand Kankakee Marsh. In order to make the land habitable for settlers and productive for agriculture, Indiana governments and individuals were encouraged to drain swamplands across Indiana through ditching and tiling. While hydromodification provides many challenges to water quality, there are ways to marry drainage and water quality. The Indiana Drainage Handbook describes how to perform drainage operations in the most environmentally friendly manner. While the handbook is advisory in nature and does not supersede the powers granted to government agencies by Indiana statute, it provides a conversation-starter for watershed groups and their county surveyors.
Two-stage ditches are an innovation in drainage management. These engineered channels provide an in-place floodplain [PDF] to slow water velocity, process nitrogen, trap sediment and prevent flooding of the adjacent farm fields. These ditches are virtually self-maintaining – sediment build-up and erosion are prevented by the benches created within the ditch. In addition, less maintenance means less disturbance of the aquatic life inhabiting the watercourse, creating a win-win situation for producers and the ecosystem.