Farmers in Polk and Dallas counties in central Iowa are participating in a “blitz” of construction of water quality structures over the next 14 months as part of a unique collaboration of state, county and federal conservation officials along with private contractors.

The project, revealed last week, will add 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors to farm fields in the two counties. The project, organizers said, will protect water quality in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, as well as their tributaries, without adversely affecting the field’s production.

The collaborators, led by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Polk County, are already looking for 100 to 150 sites in Polk and Dallas counties for additional water quality projects in the second phase of the project, said Mike Naig, Iowa secretary of agriculture. 

“I’m excited about this project being 51 saturated buffers and bioreactors, but I’m even more excited about the second phase,” Naig said. “This is the acceleration of the water quality practices that I really want to see going forward.”

The first phase of the project will use a streamlined approach to work with landowners who have signed on to participate in the project. Instead of working on one site at a time, the Polk County Board of Supervisors has hired a single contractor to build dozens of bioreactors and saturated buffers on multiple farms.

The cost of the projects will be shared by the State of Iowa, which will pay 75% of the construction expenses, and Polk County.

Befitting the public

Both saturated buffers and bioreactors have shown to provide significant water quality benefits by removing nitrates from tile drainage. While these structures provide little agronomic benefit to farmers, they have proven to make measurable improvements in water quality. 

“They really benefit the people downstream, so it makes sense for public dollars to pay a greater percentage of the cost for constructing these structures,” Naig said.

The U.S. Department of Ag­­riculture's (USDA) National Re­sources Conservation Service (NRCS) is providing engineering and design support for the project. Polk and Dallas Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) and the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition are providing construction, technical and project management support.

Hands On Tiling and Excavating, based in Radcliffe, won the bid to do the construction. “These practices serve as a great spoke in the wheel of our conservation and water quality goals," said Jacob Handsaker, a Hardin County Farm Bureau member and owner of the contracting company. “The public-private partnership between federal, state, local agencies and private landowners will be a great stepping stone to ease concerns from landowners for the adoption of future water quality and drainage projects.”

Serving as a model
Naig said this streamlined approach to water quality projects can serve as a model for other areas of state. “There are a lot of other counties around Iowa that are looking at this group approach to edge-of-field practices,” he said.