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Mechanisms for Watershed Protection


Task 4, Prioritization of Concerns, resulted in a subwatershed scoring technique which ranked each of the major drainage units and the 217 delineated subwatersheds for their preservation and mitigation potentials. The next step after identifying areas prioritized for various activities is to identify the mechanisms to encourage those activities. Because the watershed is so large, site specific information cannot be gleaned for the entire basin. Instead, land cover data and other spatial data were relied upon to model the watershed at its broad scale. Similarly, protection mechanisms and identification of practices already in place are largely broad, as the identification of specific land use planning activities and ordinances in every municipality was not possible under the scope of this project. Identification of those mechanisms were gleaned from stakeholder interviews and internet research. Therefore, they are not inclusive. Further, the identification of geographic regions to apply these measures are also not inclusive. This chapter should be viewed as an introduction to additional needed work in the implementation phase.

(Links to additional information are provided on the attached table.)

Preservation of forests and wetlands

The subwatersheds were scored based on the percentage of wetland and forest land cover in each. The highest average scores were identified in the northwest portions of the watershed, which include the Paw Paw River, Dowagiac River and Rocky River Watersheds. Beebee Creek in Hillsdale County also scored high. However, this does not indicate that preservation is not important in the Indiana portions of the watershed. An isolated wetland was identified in the Turkey Creek Watershed in the southern portion of Elkhart County. This score was lost in the major drainage unit scoring, but was identified in the scoring of the 217 subwatersheds.

The Steering Committee identified sediments, nutrients, habitat loss, wetland loss and animal waste as the top five watershed concerns. The preservation of intact forest, prairie and wetland areas can prevent an increase in the occurrence of those concerns, and other techniques discussed in this chapter can reduce those pollutants at the source.

In the Watershed…

Fabius Township, in the Rocky River Watershed, developed a Greenprint, which identified natural resources, such as wetlands and priority rural views, in the township and laid out a plan to preserve them through zoning. This includes protection of wetlands smaller than 5 acres.

Lands identified for preservation can be protected through a variety of mechanisms. Private landowners can voluntarily choose to protect their land. However, development pressures, which are moving further and further from urban cores, are making it difficult to preserve these lands.
Lands can be donated to each state's Department of Natural Resources to be incorporated into its parks systems. Each state has a trust fund established for the purchase of such lands. The Indiana Heritage Trust was established in 1992 to acquire land with "examples of outstanding natural resources and habitats or have historical or archaeological significance". Sales of special license plates (blue eagle and sun) contribute to the fund. For example, the Fawn River Nature Preserve in LaGrange County was acquired in 1999. It is composed of 135 acres of upland beech and maple woods and a rare lowland oak forest. The preserve protects riparian habitat bordering more than a mile of the Fawn River.

(The Indiana Heritage Trust link in the attached table includes additional information about preserved lands in the watershed.)

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, established in 1976, provides grants to local governments and the state to purchase lands for outdoor recreation and for preservation of open space. It is supported by revenues from state-owned mineral interests.
Many land conservancies are active in the watershed. The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy owns approximately twelve preserves in the St. Joseph River Watershed in Van Buren, St. Joseph, Cass and Berrien Counties. Land can be donated to the conservancy by interested landowners. Volunteers help manage the lands by performing activities such as removal of invasive species.

In the Watershed…

In October 2003 the Michigan Chapter of the Nature Conservancy acquired 139 acres of prairie fen habitat in the headwaters of the East Branch of the Paw Paw River. The fen is included in one of only 15 remaining locations in the world which provide habitat for the federally endangered Mitchell's satyr butterfly.

The Trillium Land Conservancy works to protect land in Elkhart County. The Wawasee Lake Conservancy Foundation has acquired over 419 acres of wetlands around the Wawasee Lake in Noble County. Townships can establish partnerships with land trusts to provide matching funds for fee simple ownership of lands or to purchase conservation easements or development rights.

Private landowners can receive tax incentives to protect their own land through conservation easements. A landowner may wish to sell the land to a buyer who has conservation goals for the land. However, it is expensive and time consuming to advertise these lands for sale through special avenues to find buyers. Similarly, it may be difficult for buyers to find large tracts of undisturbed land. A network of buyers and sellers interested in conservation is needed. This network should be used to conserve agricultural lands, as well.

Land use planning and zoning can be used to protect natural resources within a municipality. A natural features inventory is a good way to identify those lands. However, many townships do not have any planning mechanisms in place. This may occur in townships where municipal officials are employed in a part-time capacity, as the tax base is low. For example, Branch County has several townships, five of the sixteen, which are not zoned. These townships are rural and not located along a major transportation corridor. Therefore, it may be felt that development does not threaten the current land uses. However, these areas have many valuable natural resources. Further these townships with many natural resources have less tax revenue available for the development of a land use plan or natural features inventory. Townships should pool their resources to develop plans, especially within a watershed or where they share contiguous natural resources.
Sherwood Township in Branch County is unzoned and 95% agricultural. The St. Joseph River flows through the township and is primarily wooded along its banks. Protection measures should be implemented to help these buffers remain intact. Perhaps downstream property owners or municipalities who could be adversely affected by sedimentation could purchase these lands or easements on them to assure that the buffers remain intact.
In Indiana, zoning is implemented at the county level.
Michigan law allows comprehensive planning to be conducted at the county, city, village or township level (Sea Grant, 2002). There are regional commissions in the watershed including the Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG; St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall Counties) and the Southwest Michigan Commission. These organizations operate by county boundaries, not watershed boundaries. MACOG deals primarily with transportation issues. However, it has a water quality department and has been awarded some grants to fund St. Joseph River Watershed projects in Indiana.

Identification of areas to apply conservation measures/BMPs

Agricultural land
Lands were identified for application of conservation measures and BMPs based on the percentage of agricultural and urban land cover and on the presence of identified impaired waters. This is not to imply that agricultural land uses are not desired in the watershed, quite the contrary. Numerous surveys have identified preservation of agricultural land uses as a high priority. In addition to the obvious benefits of food and fiber production, agricultural land uses provide an aesthetic characteristic to the watershed.

A visual preference survey conducted by the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance, Michigan State University and the Michigan Association of Realtors (2004), identified farmland, which provides wide, open green space, as highly desirable in Michigan. A 1998 "Examination of Challenges and Opportunities" in Hillsdale County recommended land use planning and a diversification of agricultural products as necessary to protect farmland. A 2000 resident survey in the county identified the loss of farmland as a critical problem.

The watershed is largely agricultural (70%). Agriculture occupies over 80% of the land use (by subwatershed) in the Pigeon and Elkhart River Watersheds (Indiana). Agricultural products include hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. Some fruits and vegetables are grown in the western portions of the watershed. Traditional farming methods are practiced by Amish communities in the eastern and central portions of the watershed.

In the Watershed…

In St. Joseph County (IN) agricultural land identified as prime land may not be split into parcels smaller than 20 acres nor have less than 600 feet of road frontage when the land use is changed from agricultural to residential. Prime agricultural land is found in the southern portions of the county. Similar ordinances are also found in Calvin and Wayne Townships in Cass County (MI.)

The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, administered by the Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service provides matching funds (up to 50% of the easement fair market value) to help eligible entities purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranch land in agricultural use. The Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program, administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, has five programs to aid in preservation. One of these programs, the Agricultural Preservation Fund provides grants to local governments to purchase conservation easements through Purchase of Development Rights programs. Participating land owners commit to at least ten years.

There are also programs to acknowledge farmers who employ practices to protect water quality and conserve soil. The Indiana River Friendly Farmer program is sponsored by the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (and other organizations). A farmer who meets each of nine environmental criteria on his land can be nominated for the award. Winners are recognized annually at the Indiana State Fair.
The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program certifies farming practices under three program areas: Livestock, Farmstead and Cropping. Certification is available currently for the Livestock program, which includes implementation of a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan.

The Wood-Land-Lakes RC&D Council works to protect farmland in Northeast Indiana. It holds conservation easements on farms in Elkhart, LaGrange and Steuben Counties. Tax Incremental Funding has been used in Elkhart County to provide a rebate on tax increases for the purchase of development rights on agricultural land. The use of this mechanism for agricultural protection was unique because the funds are typically used for industry. The Land Information Access Association (Traverse City, MI) has developed websites for Hillsdale and Van Buren Counties and an informational CD for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project. These resources all contain valuable information on zoning methods to protect farmland including exclusive use zoning, slide scale zoning, open space (cluster) zoning and the requirement of buffers between agricultural land and residential development.

(More information on these and other zoning techniques can be found on the
Hillsdale County web link in the attached table.)

Land use ordinances including agricultural land protection measures are developed on a township basis. Some Michigan townships have received assistance from the Dowagiac River Watershed Project to prepare new Master Plans. Calvin, Wayne and Marcellus Townships (Cass County) were noted as examples of municipalities with good land use planning in the interview process. Agricultural lands in these townships are zoned as prime or general. Prime agricultural land sold in the townships may only have one residence constructed on every forty acres. (Prime agriculture is defined by the USDA as land best suited to grow food, feed, forage, fiber and oilseed crops. Prime agriculture produces the best yields with minimal economic input and the least environmental damage.) In contrast, general agricultural areas allow smaller parcel divisions. Many of these forty-acre plots are being used for small horse farms. This ordinance has prevented the development of small residential lots in the Christiana Creek Watershed. In contrast, Newburg Township in Cass County has no land use zoning. Agricultural lands can also be protected with open space zoning, which uses cluster development to concentrate homes and leave the remainder of the property undeveloped.

Indiana has a filter strip law which allows for a $1/acre assessment for property taxes for farms having filter strips of a particular size. It appears that this would serve as a good incentive for landowners to use this practice. However, many still do not use them. One suggested reason is a reluctance to use federal funding, as the use of funds may include restrictions on property rights. It may be a good idea to incorporate a mechanism to provide mini-grants from the Friends of the St. Joe River Association for the installation of BMPs. Therefore, the direct connection in the funding is from a nonprofit agency, creating a buffer and alleviating potential concerns about infringements on private property rights through federal restrictions.

The Noble County Drain Surveyor distributes free seeds for replanting buffer strips on agricultural lands following work on drains that disrupt the buffer. According to the Soil and Water Conservation District, the program is quite popular within the county and helps to reduce sediment and nutrient loading to the watershed.

Lake communities
Lake communities located in rural areas face unique issues. They are typically in areas of lands valued for preservation (agricultural, forest, wetland) and are usually not connected to a regional sewer system. The remote beauty of the lakes draws residents and summer visitors. Waterfront properties get disproportionate development compared to upland areas. However, the concentration of septic systems around the lakes can take a toll on surface water quality. The need for regional treatment systems or connections to a sanitary sewer system has been identified in many areas of the watershed.

For example, LaGrange County has several lakes and a large influx of visitors each summer. Some lake communities, such as Fish Lake and Stone Lakes in LaGrange County, Klinger Lake in St. Joseph County and part of Palmer Lake near Colon have been sewered recently. A comparison of aerial photographs of Klinger Lake illustrates the reduction in algal blooms following sewering, and improvements have been observed in Fish and Stone Lakes.

In the Watershed…

In Cass County, sewers have been installed around Donnell Lake, the subject of a past Section 319 grant. This has reduced nitrate levels in the groundwater in that area. Sewers have also been constructed around Indian Lake, Barren Lake, Diamond Lake, Eagle Lake, Lake Garver, Paridixie Lake, the Sisters Lakes and in the Village of Vandalia. The Diamond Lake Association monitors coliform levels and has not found high levels since the construction of the sewer. Sewer construction is also planned or occurring around Baldwind-Long-Coverdale Lakes, Shavehead Lake, Birch Lake and Juno-Painter-Christiana Lakes.

Citizens groups around Fisher Lake near Three Rivers are interested in sewer installation and have approached the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph District Health Agency to request an assessment of the lake. The cost of connection to the sewer system is a major drawback to resident buy-in at many lakes. When sewer connection is not plausible, septic pretreatment has been suggested. A sewer use assessment was recommended to fund maintenance of pretreatment equipment for lake residents.

Other requirements to protect lake resources can include a restriction on the installation of septic systems in new developments, which should only be constructed where they have access to the sanitary sewer. The Kalamazoo Metropolitan County Planning Commission recommends this in its policy statements. When a property with a septic system is sold, an inspection should be required. Further, information on proper septic system maintenance should be provided to the new property owner. The Michiana Council of Governments has produced a free educational video titled "Septic Systems 1-2-3". It has been distributed to title companies within the jurisdiction. Wider distribution of this video throughout the watershed to Realtors and title companies should be sought.

The Indiana Office of the Commissioner of Agriculture Land Resource Council identified rural wastewater management as a priority for 2003 and hence established a Rural Wastewater Task Force. The task force met nine times in 2003 to recommend eight activities for facilitating proper wastewater treatment in rural areas. Recommendations included a tracking system to document system failures and a training and certification program for inspectors and regulators. The Elkhart County Commissioners received a Section 319 grant to identify problematic septic systems in the county. That project led to the development of a Watershed Management Plan for the Lower Yellow Creek Watershed.

Some states allow Clean Water Fund Revolving Loans to be used for nonpoint source pollution reduction projects, including maintenance of septic systems. Funds are traditionally used for upgrades and construction of wastewater treatment plants. This could include the construction of new plants for lake communities. Indiana funds may be used for wetland protection, erosion control, stormwater Best Management Practices and conservation easements. Michigan Revolving Fund monies may only be used for publicly owned facilities, which may include stormwater facilities. The state has created a Strategic Water Quality Initiatives Fund which can be use for the upgrade or replacement of failing on-site systems, or the removal of stormwater or groundwater from sewer leads.

According to "Funding Opportunities: A Directory of Energy Efficient, Renewable Energy, and Environmental Protection Assistance Programs" published by the U.S. EPA State and Local Capacity Building Branch (2004), Drinking Water State Revolving Funds can be used in some instances to support green infrastructure activities such as permeable pavement, rooftop gardens and other measures that help reduce the urban heat island effect and save energy. Grants are awarded to states to provide low-cost loans to public water systems to finance the costs of infrastructure projects. States are also authorized to use a portion of their funds for set-aside activities such as source water protection.

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