Are we there yet? No.

Are we making clear and significant strides? Definitely, and we have the numbers to prove it!

Earlier this month, Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa DNR released a new report with 115 pages of actions and results that demonstrate Iowa’s recent conservation and water quality progress.

Here are my favorites.

1. Farmers have cut phosphorus loss by 22%.

Iowa has a proven model for improving water quality. The terraces, buffer strips and other erosion and runoff prevention practices implemented by Iowa’s farmers over the course of decades have reduced phosphorus loss by 22 percent since the 1980s and early 1990s.

Iowa farmers have reduced phosphorus loss by 22%

“Here’s why I know we can be successful with nitrogen, nitrates and water quality overall; we’ve done it before,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “We’re doing it now, with phosphorus and soil conservation.”

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) calls for applying the same successful formula (along with some different, nitrate-specific practices) to Iowa’s nitrate challenge. Of course, it takes time and money to grow the implementation of those nitrate practices and see them pay dividends, but (as you’ll see in the next stat) farmers are quickly ramping up adoption.

2. Farmers plant 200 times more cover crop acres than they did a decade ago.

As mentioned above, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (which was first funded by the Iowa Legislature in 2013) elevated the importance of Iowa’s nitrate issue and gave farmers and their partners the list of proven, science-based water quality protection practices they needed to take on the challenge.

A decade ago, before the development of the NRS, Iowa had less than 10,000 acres of cover crops.

Today, Iowa farmers plant more than 2 million acres of cover crops. That’s significant because the scientific research in the NRS says that cover crops prevent, on average, 28 – 31 percent of nitrates from reaching our water. You can take a deeper dive into Iowa’s cover crop growth here.

Today, Iowa farmers plant more than 2 million acres of cover crops

Another nitrate-specific practice that’s growing rapidly: wetlands. The NRS science says that wetlands help prevent, on average, 52 percent of nitrates from reaching our water. According to Secretary Naig, Iowa has constructed 90 wetlands over the past 15 years, and there are 41 more wetlands currently under development that will be completed over the next couple of years. 

3. Iowa has 12 times more self-sustaining trout streams than it had in the 1980s.

This stat isn’t in the 115-page report, but it’s noteworthy for Iowans who look to wildlife as a key indicator of water quality.

The eagles are back at once-impaired Hewitt Creek.

The mussels are back in once-impaired Lime Creek.


And, according to Iowa DNR, Iowa now has 61 streams with self-sustaining trout populations, up from just five streams during the 1980s.

The number of Iowa streams with self-supporting trout populations is up 12-fold over the past 36 years.

The common thread: collaborative conservation initiatives, led by farmers, landowners, cities and other local government entities, NGOs, businesses, colleges and universities, and state government agencies.

4. More than 50,000 Iowans attended events to grow their conservation and water quality knowledge in 2019.

Impressed by Iowa’s early returns, but not ready to declare “mission accomplished”? You’re not alone. Farmers feel the same way; they’re motivated to learn and do more to protect Iowa’s water quality.

In 2019 alone, 50,800 Iowans attended 540 conservation and water quality education events (up from 46,000 in 2018).

If you’re looking for predictors of future water quality results, this stat might be the most enlightening one.

When it comes to Iowa’s water quality goals, we’re not there yet, but we’re on the right track, with the proven approach and resolve to produce even better results in 2020, 2021, and beyond.