Big Spring Appreciation Day Celebrating Conservation Efforts

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By Gary Siegwarth

Area farmers in the Silver Creek and upper Roberts Creek watersheds were recently invited to follow the path of the water that drains from land they farm to where it comes out at Big Spring Trout Hatchery. The first time event was a way of giving producers recognition for conservation practices added to land they farm within the Big Spring Watershed, which has a direct benefit to the water quality of the spring. The evening included a geological history of the spring, a tour of the trout hatchery, demonstration of a rainfall simulator, fishing with their kids and grandchildren at the kids trout pond, horse pulled wagon rides, and an evening meal. The appreciation day was sponsored by Clayton County Pheasants Forever, the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network, the Clayton County Soil & Water Conservation District, and the Iowa DNR.

A number of farmers in attendance had never been to Big Spring even though they’ve farmed in the watershed their entire life. The Big Spring Basin drains more than 66,000 acres, which was mapped out in the late 1970’s and 80’s as part of a comprehensive project using dye tracing of sinkholes and losing streams to determine where the water came from. During that time, a lot of effort went into working with producers in the watershed to reduce the silt load and excess nutrients of the spring.  Since that time, however, many of those farms have changed hands and a significant amount of land has been converted from woodlands and pasture to row crops. This has created a renewed need to promote additional conservation practices such as no-till, cover crops, stream buffer strips, field prairie strips, terraces, and contour strip cropping to offset the more intense row crop production within the watershed.  

In 2013, the Clayton Soil & Water Conservation District secured an Iowa Water Quality Initiative Demonstration Project grant.  The grant provides additional incentives to further promote cover crops, no-till and other sustainable conservation systems within the watershed.  These practices keep soil and nutrients in place on farm fields, helping prevent them from becoming a source of pollution to water resources like Big Spring, Roberts Creek, and the Turkey River.  Over 1,700 acres of cover crops were used in 2014.  The appreciation day was an opportunity for many producers to enjoy the direct connection their conservation efforts have on improving water quality and outdoor recreational opportunities at Big Spring.

Big Spring Hatchery is one of three Department of Natural Resources operated trout hatcheries in Iowa.  The unique topography, coldwater springs, and trout streams found only in the northeast corner of Iowa were formed by a combination of glaciers missing this part of the state and nearly 500,000 years of stream/river down cutting.  Over that amount of time, the forces of erosion and stream down cutting have removed overlying glacial deposits and carved deep valleys below the limestone bedrock, which allows groundwater to flow out as springs.  Big Spring was first developed as a private fishing club/hatchery in the late 1930’s by Otto and Mary Bankes before they sold it to the state in 1961.  Mary recently celebrated her 100th birthday and still resides in Elkader.  In the early days, their attempt to reduce the heavy silt loads that plagued the spring was to locate and plug sinkholes they suspected drained to the spring.  Today, more than 250,000 rainbow and brook trout are reared to catchable size at Big Spring and stocked in streams throughout Northeast Iowa.  

 
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