Feb 28, 2023

Jim Hess, manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District, demonstrates soilconservation methods.
Photo from video / Elkhart County

GOSHEN — As water came down in sheets outside, the Elkhart County Storm Water Board got a look at soil conservation methods put into practice during its meeting Monday.
Jim Hess, manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District, gave the board a demonstration on soil infiltration during its morning meeting. He said infiltration is seen in water retention facilities, which are built to hold water and let it slowly absorb into the ground, as well as field practices like cover crops, filter strips and grass waterways.
He said the soil conservation practices allow fields to function like municipal storm drains on a large scale.
“Basically what we do is we try to create that big sponge, and infiltrate down through in large capacities,” he said. “Instead of a small storm drain that would be a 2-foot in diameter, we may have a 25-, 50-, 150-acre field that now is a drain and it helps absorb and soak in that water rather than letting it sheet flow off into our ditches.”
The value of practices that encourage infiltration is that it’s a form of pretreatment, taking some of the pollutants out of the water, Hess said. It can also slow water down so towns and cities don’t have to take on so much at once during heavy rain events.
“It’s easier to work with nature than it is to try and fight it. We can engineer and we can put things in place to help minimize that, but nature always wins. So we have to put in programs to help educate individuals that we have to do this as a community. Not just one individual, it’s the partnership, it’s community-wide,” he said. “Because our water all goes, inevitably, to the Elkhart River, Baugo Creek and then eventually to the St. Joe River and Lake Michigan. All of our water travels through one or two or three of our cities that are in that path.”
He demonstrated soil conservation methods vs. traditional soil tilling practices by adding water to two tall containers of dirt. One came out clear and the other a murky brown.
He compared it to putting coffee grounds straight into the machine or using a coffee filter.
“You can see the difference in color, so there’s an organic matter piece to that. The one on the right allows the water to move through it, so it’s basically that sponge like I’m talking about, soaking up that water,” Hess said. “The one on the left is not soaking up any water and moving to our streams, which inevitably is one of our major pollutants, sediment.”
The conservation district has been educating and encouraging growers to adopt soil conservation practices for several years through the Storm Water Alliance Management Program. He said they saved about 31,000 tons of soil from entering ditches last year.
Jordan Fouts
“One of the reasons that we started the SWAMP program is because we can use local dollars, storm water dollars, to help bridge that gap between not fitting into a federal program or sometimes the federal dollars aren’t available,” he said. “That’s one of the things we set up differently in 2023,is we now are setting educational meetings as a prerequisite to be in that program. … We can kind of dial in our acres and know where we’re at come this fall.”