Mississippi River Priority Site

Boone River, Iowa

In the Boone River Watershed, economy and ecology can thrive alongside each other.

Covering 895 square miles of north-central Iowa, the Boone River's watershed is both environmentally and economically significant. Boone tributaries contain habitat designated as critical for continued survival of the Topeka shiner, a federally-listed endangered species. Other rare mussel and fish species also depend on the watershed's streams, as do humans: the Boone feeds the Des Moines River, a secondary water source for the city of Des Moines.

In addition, soils in much of the watershed are well suited for farming, and more than 83 percent of it is currently used for row crop agriculture. Tile drainage systems on much of that acreage provide a direct route for field runoff to reach the Boone and other surface waters.

Although a Nature Conservancy assessment of the Boone determined its watershed to be among the healthiest in Iowa's great farmland, it also determined that changes in water quality, stream flow and physical habitat were hurting the watershed's plants and animals. However, according to that study, none of those changes appeared beyond repair.

Strategies and Progress

In keeping with a core belief that economy and ecology can thrive alongside each other, the Conservancy has joined with other organizations and stakeholders in the Boone River Watershed Partnership to determine land and water management practices that will protect freshwater quality and species while sustaining area agriculture.

For example, adding nutrients to soil is expensive for farmers. Finding new ways to keep those nutrients on the land, rather than having them wash away into area waterways, benefits farmers by reducing the amount of nutrients required to maintain crop productivity and by lowering the energy costs of applying them.

Partners in this work include the Iowa Soybean Association, Prairie Rivers of Iowa Resource Conservation & Development, Iowa State University and private landowners.

Iowa State University's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development has developed a detailed computer model of the watershed. The model evaluates the effects of various farming practices in light of the recent ethanol boom (e.g. What happens to water quality if all available land is converted to corn? What happens if all available land is converted to warm season grass?). The model can predict areas that might be particularly vulnerable to changes in agricultural practices and has helped partners identify conservation actions with the potential to simultaneously benefit the area's working farmers and the environment.

Boone River watershed partners are using this model, along with scientific reports from the Conservancy, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Soybean Association and others, to cooperatively develop a watershed plan with water users in the Boone.

The work along the Boone River is important locally and on a much wider scale. Lessons learned within the watershed will be shared through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership to advance the Conservancy's national and global efforts to protect the Earth's critically important freshwater resources.


Watch a short video.

See how some farming techniques help keep nutrients out of streams.