Clean water is fundamental to a healthy life for both humans and wildlife. Living in a watershed, we can all influence the quality of our water. How we manage our land affects stream habitat, water quality and soil health. Using wise conservation principles on your land can help protect our water resources and wildlife.
Impacts to wildlife
Water naturally cycles through the environment, evaporating from bodies of water, plants, and soil and returning to the Earth as precipitation, which may enter groundwater aquifers or run off into streams and rivers.
When we alter an ecosystem’s composition, we affect this hydrological cycle. Replacing a swath of native grasses with farm fields, a lawn or pavement, for example, prevents water from effectively penetrating the soil and replenishing groundwater supplies. As a result, the velocity and volume of water flowing in a stream can exceed capacity, degrading stream banks and eroding soil.
This runoff often carries sediment, chemicals and nutrients into streams and lakes. In Indiana, the majority of surface water runoff travels down the Wabash or Ohio Rivers into the Mississippi River.
Once in the water, nutrients can accelerate the process of eutrophication, a natural aging process where organic material accumulates in a body of water. The nutrients stimulate the growth of algae, which shades underwater life and inhibits photosynthesis, plants’ essential food-making process. Algae, depending on the species and conditions, are capable of producing toxins that can harm fish and people.
When algae die, oxygen resources are drained by the decomposers in the food chain. Organisms living underwater depend on oxygen just like those on land. Oxygen dissolves in water, and aquatic wildlife use it for respiration. Aquatic critters suffer when oxygen levels change significantly, and they do not survive in extremely oxygen-rich or oxygen-deprived conditions.
Indiana’s water quality
Indiana is the smallest state in the Mississippi River Basin, which drains 40% of the nation’s waters, yet we are the third largest contributor of phosphorus, a nutrient that encourages eutrophication, to the Gulf of Mexico’s eutrophic dead zone, as reported in a US Geological Survey study. In 2011, the dead zone grew to 6,765 square miles, larger than Connecticut, and second only to the Baltic Sea’s dead zone.
Indiana’s waters are a consistent contributor to this lifeless area. IDEM’s 303(d) List of Impaired Waters, which identifies and explains Indiana’s water quality problems, has grown by 200 rivers and streams since 2008. Classification of impairments can include E.coli, taste and odor issues, impaired biotic communities, nutrients and algae.
These data illustrate the magnitude of our struggle to protect quality habitat and clean water resources in Indiana. Prioritizing conservation practices on private and public land is critically important to achieve improvements.
As the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, soil cycles nutrients, filters pollutants, manages water supply, supports buildings and provides habitat for flora and fauna. Poor soil hampers plant growth and organism survival by restricting the availability, and preventing the storage of water and nutrients.
Implementing conservation practices that minimize soil disturbance and compaction are important in establishing quality habitat space and restoring our natural resources. For example, planting riparian vegetation along stream banks not only stabilizes the soil, but also creates an important food source for fish.
Habitats native to Indiana, such as a prairie, forest, or wetlands, provide space for wildlife. With abundant food and water resources, wildlife species can grow and thrive. Over 95% of Indiana’s land is privately owned. As private landowners, whether we have a small backyard or 1000 acre farm, it’s up to all of us to help restore Indiana’s natural heritage of clean lakes and streams through the use of sound conservation practices.