Managing the movement of water is a top concern for farmers this year as they monitor the snow melt from a particularly brutal winter. The subject of managing Iowa’s watersheds topped many discussions at the 2019 Iowa Water Conference in Ames.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Water Quality Resource Coordinator Adam Schnieders spoke to a packed room of conservationists, industry leaders and resource coordinators about the latest technology that documents what is going on with Iowa’s landscape at a granular level. 

Schnieders discussed LiDar (light detection and ranging) imaging airplanes, which use lasers to get high-resolution images of the land, including the slope and the relief of the land statewide. LiDar, used by engineers to build roads, is being used to track the investment in conservation across Iowa. Iowa is one of the first states in the nation to use LiDar this way.

Images being evaluated were captured between 2007-2010, which was before the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was put in place. Knowing what conservation structures the state started with shows opportunities to begin or expand conservation moving forward.  

LiDar captures conservation practices that can be seen aerially, including ponds, sediment and control basins, terraces and grassed waterways. LiDar doesn’t capture other types of conservation practices, such as cover crops, no-till or bioreactors. Images of priority watersheds were the focus.  

“We knew a lot of things are going on, but now thanks to LiDar, we can actually put accurate counts that have been quality-controlled by the state.  For example, we found 114,000 pond dams and about 88,000 miles of terraces--which is enough to go around the Earth three and a half times, which is an incredible amount of conservation investment by landowners across the state.  And, for water and sediment control basins, which are those little check structures like mini-terraces, there are about 12,000 miles of those.  So, that shows a lot of progress.”

The question of what is in place and what has been spent is top of mind in every conservation discussion, whether at the Statehouse or the corner café.  Schnieders gets those questions, too.  “Right now, from our initial estimates, using Cost Share information from NRCS, we’re submitted about $6.2 billion in conservation investment for just those practices I mentioned that were captured by LiDar.”

More is needed to reach the Nutrient Reduction Strategy targets of a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loads to the Mississippi River watershed.  Knowing where we start and finding better ways to capture that progress, is all part of the picture. 

More exciting news is on the horizon.  Schnieders and his researchers are looking at new photography, from 2016 to 2018, to see progress and work put in place since the start of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  And, laser technology continues to evolve which would bring improved imaging that could detect other types of previously untracked conservation measures.  Other states are watching and interested, including researchers in Minnesota.

Schnieders stresses that time is needed to fully realize Iowa’s conservation goals; upwards of 20 to 30 years.  But, by tapping into the latest technology and by working together with multiple stakeholders, it appears Iowa is off to a great start.