Indian Creek Watershed Project

Indian Creek Watershed Project

Over the course of six years, the Indian Creek Watershed Project proved to be a significant model for voluntary water quality improvement efforts—not just in Livingston County, Illinois, but across the country.

Project organizers talked to every single producer in the watershed about conservation practices and water quality, and by the end of the project, conservation systems and best management practices (BMPs) were in place on at least 57% of the agricultural acreage in the Indian Creek drainage.

Goals and Recipes

Key concepts at the heart of the Indian Creek Watershed Project included:

  • The importance of locally led conservation efforts
  • The power of including stakeholders in the watershed from off and on the farm
  • Cooperation among conservation entities within the watershed
  • Demonstrations of key conservation practices under local conditions
  • The impact of applying priority conservation practices by at least 50% of the producers in a small watershed to improve water quality in the receiving surface waters

CTIC and the local organizers in the watershed also developed “recipes” that could be used by organizers in other watersheds around the nation. Tools including research on organizational elements influencing the adoption of BMPs and a booklet on leadership lessons from the project help share those recipes.

Organization and Funding

The Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Illinois led the project, recruiting a steering committee of local stakeholders and getting them deeply involved in every aspect of the project. CTIC brought organizational, educational and outreach expertise, using EPA 319 funding received from Illinois EPA. Illinois EPA and the US Geological Survey (USGS) provided data on water quality and other parameters to measure the impact of conservation practices on water quality in the creek.

Additional funding through the Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI)—a program of USDA NRCS and US EPA—assisted in implementation.

Outcomes and Information

Leaders of the Indian Creek Watershed Project personally contacted every one of the more than 100 farmers in the watershed to inform them about conservation options and benefits, as well as about incentives and programs that helped make key practices more attractive. The team also listened carefully to local farmers, engaging them in surveys of their concerns, focus groups, and roundtable discussions.

The project was the source of a wide range of insight into conservation practices, promotion, and impacts, which are detailed in the project’s final report. Among the highlights include:

  • An aggressive water quality monitoring program contributed to a study by Jennifer Tank and Ursula Mahl at the University of Notre Dame demonstrating an impact on water quality in Indian Creek from widespread adoption of conservation practices in the watershed.
  • A groundbreaking study by Purdue University researchers on the leadership techniques that contributed to the success of the project. The extension bulletin by Sarah P. Church and Linda Stalker Prokopy was augmented by a pair of videos—with links here and here—on YouTube.
  • Trials of perennial bioenergy crops, conducted in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Michigan. The study explored the role of perennial bioenergy crops as rotation options for local farmers, nutrient removal by the alternative crops, and the use of the perennials in holistic management of the agricultural landscape.
  • Demonstrations of key conservation practices and products, illustrating concepts such as nutrient use efficiency and the proper applications of the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship.
  • Heightened awareness of water quality issues, augmented by watershed project field tours and a series of speaking engagements throughout the country by project leaders.
  • A CropLife webinar brought project details and conservation messages to a nationwide audience of 125 participants.

CTIC disseminated information from the project throughout its six-year funding period, organizing summer field tours, winter producer meetings, and other speaking opportunities. CTIC also worked with agricultural media through direct contact and press releases, and created materials to share with conservation leaders in other watersheds, including a booklet and video on leadership lessons and partnership development based on experiences from the project.

A series of fact sheets—distributed to farmers, ag retailers, and crop consultants by CTIC and the local Soil and Water Conservation District—captured key lessons from the project, including:

Six video vignettes profiled farmers active in the project, detailing their conservation practices. The CTIC website for the project logged nearly 20,000 page views during the funding period.

Project Sponsors and Partners

The key to the success of the Indian Creek Watershed Project has always been the commitment and cooperation of the project’s sponsors and partners. Those sponsors and partners have been recognized throughout the project for their support of the demonstration plot program through financial commitments, in-kind donations and the invaluable contribution of expertise and insight. They include:

  • Agrium
  • A.J. Sackett & Sons Company
  • Altorfer, Inc.
  • BASF
  • Brandt
  • Case IH
  • Crop Production Services
  • Cropsmith
  • Dow AgroSciences
  • The Fertilizer Institute
  • Illinois American Water
  • Illinois Corn Marketing Board
  • Illinois Council on Best Management Practices
  • Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
  • Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association
  • Illinois Soybean Association
  • John Deere
  • Koch Agronomic Services
  • Livingston County SWCD
  • Monsanto
  • The Mosaic Company
  • New Leader
  • Syngenta
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • US Geological Survey

The six-year Indian Creek Watershed Project was a model program in many ways. A shining example of organization and leadership; a paragon of public-private partnerships; a case study in demonstration plots and outreach; a watershed studied for both its water chemistry and its social sciences; and a case study for organizers in watersheds across the nation, Indian Creek’s impacts will be felt well beyond its banks.


Facilitated by CTIC, local farmers and interested others lead this project to demonstrate and test best conservation practices on Indian Creek Watershed farms.

The project, sponsored by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (with funds provided through Section 319 of the Clean Water Act) will show how conservation practices installed on Indian Creek watershed farms will affect water quality.



Determine what water quality improvements result when 50-75% of producers and acres in a small watershed adopt comprehensive agriculture conservation systems over a six-year period.
  • Outreach activities include field tours, public meetings, email and website updates, news releases and more.
  • On-farm demonstrations showcase the latest products, techniques, equipment and tools for resource conservation.With funding from USDA, CTIC will employ tile outlet monitoring to measure water quality.
  • CTIC and Livingston SWCD partner with Argonne National Laboratories to study the growth and water quality effects of bio-energy crops in the Indian Creek watershed.
  • Through a USDA Mississippi River Basin Initiative grant, USDA-NRCS and Livingston County SWCD provide financial assistance to farmers implementing best resource management practices.
  • Every farmer in the watershed will be contacted to implement conservation practices/systems.
Illinois native Dr. Harold F. Reetz, Jr. leads design and oversight of demonstration and testing plots.  These will measure the effectiveness of how farmers manage fertilizer and manure and will demonstrate systems of best management practices for reducing negative effects on water quality in Indian Creek and downstream.

Indian Creek Watershed

The 82-square mile drainage area (52,480 acres) of Indian Creek Watershed flows to the South Fork of the Vermilion River, one of USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative focus areas. 

Agriculture dominates the watershed – 95 percent of the land is tillable, most in a corn/soybean rotation, although there are numerous livestock operations. The average farm size is 500 acres.

The City of Fairbury, the only urban population within the watershed, consists of approximately 4,000 people.

The major resource concern for Indian Creek watershed is water quality, particularly nitrate levels. Located in the southern portion of Livingston County, the watershed drains northward to the Vermilion River and the cities of Pontiac and Streator.

For more information about the project, contact Chad Watts, CTIC project director, at

Water Quality Monitoring Program

Weekly handgrab samples were taken for nitrates from March 2011 through June 2011. Monthly handgrab samples were taken for total suspended solids and phosphorus.

A Hydrolab probe was also used to gather dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, and conductivity data during each visit. Since July 2011, all parameters were sampled monthly through March 2012, when weekly sampling will began again.  This sampling occurs at four sites located along Indian Creek and on one tributary. 
US Geological Survey, with financial support from IEPA, installed a stream gage to monitor flow. In September 2011, the nitrate probe was installed. Flow and nitrate data will be taken in real-time every 15 minutes. View the real time data. The gage and probe will collect data through July 2013. For more information contact Trevor Sample.

Water Quality Monitoring at Tile Outlets

During this 2 year project (2011-2013), CTIC will demonstrate the utility, affordability and usability of nutrient management practices that apply the right source of fertilizer at the right rate, time and place by calculating nutrient use efficiency (NUE) on the same fields where tile outlets are monitored for nitrate concentrations.
Diagram of automatic sampler. Courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Outcomes will include discovering the impacts of practices demonstrated and their effects on N content of tile water as well as demonstrating nutrient use efficiency, supported by increased net yields, to influence producer adoption of the practices. Project outreach activities will share progress and results with producers (and others) and collect feedback about producer perceptions, attitudes and intentions toward future use of demonstrated practices.


Through the innovative combination of fertilizer BMPs, NUE measurements/calculations and water quality monitoring, this project aims to:
  • Determine the impacts of controlled release fertilizer on nutrient use efficiency on field site
  • Inform at least 50 percent of farmers in surrounding area about benefits of nutrient management practices demonstrated
  • Understand farmer willingness to adopt these N management practices and monitor or tile outlets through outreach and feedback event
  • Determine the impacts of spring application and fall application of nitrogen on nutrient use efficiency on field site
Three monitoring stations collect tile water at a Livingston County, IL farm field.
These objectives help reach the ultimate goal of improving yields and/or reducing N loading into the Vermilion River Watershed as a result of implementing a better N management system.
Project results will include water quality monitoring data associated with NUE in-field calculations as well as demonstrations of the usability of tile outlet monitoring by producers, the cost effectiveness of these monitoring solutions for measuring nutrient loss and the impact of associated outreach efforts to increase adoption of nutrient management practices.

The project will demonstrate conservation practices that show promise of leading to better nitrogen (N) management—spring applied N over fall applied N and enhanced-efficiency fertilizer sources. These practices will be demonstrated within N management systems and compared according to N levels, to measure the impacts of these practices on water quality. During the growing season and winter months, we will monitor water flowing from tile outlets at a farm site in close proximity (7 miles) to Indian Creek watershed.

We placed a monitoring station at each of the three demonstration field's tile outlets. Data will be collected on: fertilizer N applied, crop yield, nutrient content of harvested crop and N supply in soil prior to fertilizer application.

Bioenergy Productions

Argonne National Laboratory found a home for its biomass test site on the Ray Popejoy farm in the Indian Creek watershed.

Argonne is exploring the potential for farmers to employ underused or marginal land to produce crops for biomass energy. Factors studied include economic potential and water quality benefits.

As this project moves forward, funding from the Department of Energy is expected to support the scientific investigation and field study. Agribusiness will assist with identifying potential supply chain participants.

The project will address:
  • the disconnection between producers and users (potential new conversion facilities are constrained by the lack of lignocelluloses feedstock, producers of feedstock do not embrace these new crops because they have no outlet for their product);
  • the need to produce biomass in a sustainable way, namely not displacing other land uses, and minimizing environmental impacts to air and water.
A DOE-funded analysis to date has shown that there is a significant opportunity to greatly increase the land available for biomass production if under-productive acreage in edge of field, riparian and roadway buffers is used, even partially.
Further, increases in biomass productivity on these lands, potentially doubling the harvestable biomass, are achievable through the reuse of impaired water and entrained nutrients from upstream grain farming.
High school students planted willow saplings as part of a bioenergy study in the Indian Creek watershed.   CTIC photo.
Contact Cristina Negri,, 630-252-9662.


Our demonstrations illustrate the 4 Rs of nutrient management:
  • Right Source
  • Right Rate
  • Right Place
  • Right Time
We demonstrate management systems---not individual practices.
We measure practice success through agronomic yield, economic sustainability, nutrient use efficiency and water quality impacts.
Agrium's ESN v. Urea
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Agrium designed ESN®, a polymer coated urea, to slow the release of nitrogen into the environment. This is allows the plant to access nitrogen when it needs it the most... Read more.

Application Timing
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We designed this study to demonstrate the differences in nitrogen rates and yields with different urea application times.

Spring timing gave the best return to nitrogen dollars spent. Fall had the worst return and lowest yield. 2011 weather patterns favored spring application... Read more.

Nitrogen Application Timing
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Select the Right Time for nitrogen application. Apply the Right Rate of fertilizer to meet crop needs.

Costs of inputs make it important to provide enough N so the crop is never... Read more.

Phosphorus Sidedress with MicroEssentials®
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A soil test of the field showed a relatively low phosphorus level, so we demonstrated The Mosaic Company's MicroEssentials applied as a side-dress (plant nutrients placed on or in the soil near the roots of a growing crop to provide an additional boost in available phosphorus)... Read more.

Slow Release Fertilizer
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Herb and Aaron Steffen manage a 900-acre grain farm in southern Livingston and northern McLean counties. They hosted a demonstration and two nutrient use efficiency (NUE) trials.

The Steffens plant corn continuously on two-thirds of the acres and rotate planting of corn and... Read more.

Strip Tillage Fall Nitrogen Application
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We designed this study to demonstrate differences in nitrogen rates and yields under the same nitrogen product, where the producer planted corn for two consecutive growing seasons.

We conducted this trial to: demonstrate strip... Read more.

Strip-till Nitrogen
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Keep nutrients in the Right Place, where crops can use them.

The farmer uses real-time kinematic precision guidance to apply N fertilizer in fall or early spring in a closely-controlled location relative to... Read more.


SUPERU®, a urea based product, contains urease and denitrification inhibitors within the fertilizer granule.

Koch Agronomic Services created SUPERU® to increase crops’ nitrogen uptake and efficiency.... Read more.

Webinar: Engaging Non-operator Landowners in Conservation

PowerPoint slides from Jamie Ridgely, chief operating officer of Agren, Inc. and presenter of Aug. 29 WIIN webinar on "Engaging Non-operator Landowners in Conservation." Read more.