State grant helping with erosion issues

A Bartholomew County agency is helping local farmers prevent erosion of their farmland, and in turn improve the Driftwood Watershed, through the use of state grants.

The local Soil and Water Conservation District has used several Lake and River Enhancement (LARE) grants to help cover the costs for farmers to plant cover crops, create grass waterways and plant grass in critical areas, said Jennifer Whiteside, the district’s watershed coordinator.

“We do have a lot of farmers interested in that. They see soil going downstream and don’t want that,” Whiteside said.

Many big rains in Bartholomew County cause topsoil to be lost, she said.

The local Soil and Water Conservation District applied for $80,000 LARE grants in 2016 and 2017, but received $30,000 each time, Whiteside said. The county applied for another $80,000 LARE grant in January and will know later this year how much it will receive, she added.

Cover crops are those planted in sections of farmland during seasons the land is not used for growing cash crops. Cover crops keep the soil intact during snow and rain. Examples include radishes, cereal rye, barley and wheat.

Some farmers opt to plant fescue grass in places where they had grown crops, but that were prone to frequent flooding. The grass helps prevent loss of topsoil, Whiteside said.

Nathan Newkirk, who farms corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and cattle in southern Bartholomew and Jackson counties, said he thinks he’s built about 8 miles worth of grassed waterways since 2006 with the assistance of the Bartholomew County Soil and Water Conservation District and the various grants they secure.

The land he farms is hilly and would experience a lot of erosion without the grassed waterways, he said.

“The grassed waterways are really nice to fix places that get soil erosion,” Newkirk said.

The grassed waterways are in the lowest places where water would collect, and are about 25 to 40 feet wide, Newkirk said. Without them he’d have 5-foot-wide ditches caused by erosion, he added.

The waterways maintain the soil and nutrients, and the water that runs off is clean, Newkirk said.

Installing the grassed waterways is expensive, so the grants are helpful in implementing them, Whiteside said.

The cost-sharing the district provides through grants has helped Newkirk install grassed waterways quicker than he would have otherwise, he said.

The Soil and Water Conservation District used a $60,000 LARE grant in 2015 to conduct a diagnostic study of the Bartholomew County section of the Driftwood Watershed, Whiteside said. The watershed also includes Shelby, Johnson, Brown, Rush, Madison, Marion, Henry and Hancock counties.

The the diagnostic study focused on four subwatersheds in Bartholomew County that encompass 107 square miles. The purpose was to learn the sources of sedimentation and whether anything harmful was in the water, Whiteside said.

“It’s fairly clear; it’s not as bad as people fear,” Whiteside said.

According to the results of the study, published in 2016, “The entire segment of the Driftwood River is considered impaired for E. coli bacteria; no other impairments are listed.”

The source of the E. coli wasn’t source specific, and was believed to be from failing septic systems of wildlife, Whiteside said.

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at or (812) 379-5639.