A team effort

Secretary Naig, Sen. Sweeney, Ducks Unlimited and DNR reps meet at Otter Creek Marsh

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY — Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, second from left, looks at a map of the Otter Creek Marsh near Chelsea during a visit on Tuesday afternoon. He was joined by Sen. Annette Sweeney (R-Buckeye), right, who represents Tama County in the Iowa Senate, along with Chris Fox and Mike Shannon of Ducks Unlimited and Steven Woodruff and Rodney Ellingson of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

CHELSEA — Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined with Sen. Annette Sweeney (R-Buckeye) and representatives from Ducks Unlimited and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Tuesday afternoon to discuss visions for the future of the Otter Creek Marsh, located just off of Highway 30 near Chelsea in southeastern Tama County.

“I’m always interested in trying to leverage our resources and layering the benefits. So when you can look at an area and say ‘We can do some good from a water quality standpoint. We can do some good from a flood mitigation standpoint. We can do some good from a wildlife and recreation standpoint.’ Now you’ve just layered those wins together,” Naig said. “The other thing is I’m really excited to learn about how the private sector can get involved in this… What it does is it just leverages our collective resources to do even more, so that’s why I’m excited.”

The area covers 3,800 acres and is owned by the state. Mike Shannon of Ducks Unlimited envisioned a partnership that will improve wildlife habitation and flood mitigation while simultaneously assisting with Iowa’s nitrate reduction strategy and water quality goals as they relate to farm runoff and the loss of topsoil. Attendees estimated that the upgrades they have in mind, while not yet set in stone, would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of “a couple million” dollars.

“We’re trying to bring together a lot of different groups to make this happen. We’re just now in the planning phase, I guess, because a lot of thought has to go into this,” Shannon said. “Because I could go spend a lot of money in here. We can go do a lot of work, and it wouldn’t matter.”

The group made three stops during the approximately hour long visit, and the secretary and Sen. Sweeney had plenty of time to ask questions of the experts. The DNR staff showcased some of the approximately 20 water control structures built around the area along with a diesel pump generator, and although the terms ‘wetland’ and ‘marsh’ may have felt like misnomers given the current conditions and lack of rainfall, the mostly dry bottomlands do typically fill up with water after heavy precipitation.

It was made abundantly clear throughout the visit that any potential project is still in its planning phases, but Naig and Sweeney are optimistic about the possibility of a public-private partnership benefitting both nearby farmers and residents of larger cities further downstream.

“I think seeing this project, which started in the ’60s, and seeing the improvements we can make is a great win for Iowa with water quality (and) being able to have the habitat for our winged friends that come through here,” Sweeney said. “But also what really excites me is people are willing to keep their eyes and ears open for conversations. And conversations are what’s gonna make this gel, whether we’ve got landowners that are draining into this particular area or to be able to keep the water flow in a positive manner for water quality issues. I’m just seeing this (as) very positive for water quality and also for all of our winged fowl that we have come through the state of Iowa.”

Chris Fox, the state chair for Ducks Unlimited in Iowa, noted the state’s dwindling wetlands and joked that while it will never be the number one state for duck hunting, he hopes to keep it the number one state for agriculture and also preserve topsoil and prevent erosion in the process.

“We’re trying to be, just, number one in land responsibility,” he said.

For Naig, the broader vision is to do something that will benefit all parties involved, and he felt like Tuesday’s get together was a strong first step toward achieving that goal.

“In this case, you’re gonna be able to see the benefits locally and downstream, of course, but If we can get more sediment out of this system, then that’ll help the wildlife management area here. But it also certainly helps overall water quality here in the state of Iowa,” he said. “We’re gonna need to leverage the USDA, federal resources, yes, state resources, both DNR and Iowa Department of Ag, but I am very encouraged by the private sector involvement. You can look across companies that are making sustainability claims and setting goals and how they can get involved, certainly grower groups, commodity groups, wildlife groups, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited. That just allows us to leverage every single state dollar that gets put in with those federal resources or the private dollars. And don’t forget about the private landowners too… This is a public owned land, but outside of this example, we’re talking about farm ground or urban land (where) somebody owns that. They’re gonna continue to own that, and we’re working with them to bring conservation.”