As Iowa farmers take on the challenge of improving the state’s water quality, they are getting boots-on-the-ground assistance from Iowa Department of the Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) environmental specialists.  

The specialists, often working in teams, are scouring fields in key watersheds around Iowa to locate potential sites for edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands. Adoption of these practices, which research has shown can significantly reduce nitrates from underground tile drainage, is a key focus for IDALS as it ramps up implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in priority watersheds across the state.

“We’re doing the up-front work so we can help farmers implement these edge-of-field practices faster and easier,” said Carrie Tolzin, coordinator for the Headwaters North Raccoon River watershed in western Iowa. “It’s all part of trying to expand these practices where it makes sense to do them.”

This spring, Tolzin teamed up with two veteran watershed coordinators, T.J. Lynn of the North Raccoon River watershed and Sean McCoy of the Boone River watershed, to gather data and take key measurements at sites that hold potential for edge-of-field practices in west central Iowa. 

Doing the groundwork

The three environmental specialists are checking the depth and pattern of tile lines, measuring field slope and gathering other data to help determine if an edge-of-field practice would fit the farm’s needs, has a positive impact on water quality and won’t adversely affect crop production.

For the watershed coordinators, that’s meant a lot of crawling through drainage ditches to find tile outlets, trekking across fields to measure slope and, for the past couple of weeks, sweating through the late spring a heat wave that gripped Iowa. 

It’s certainly not easy work, but it’s necessary, said Bob Waters, IDALS regional water quality coordinator for western Iowa. 

“We do as much as possible in the office through the technology tools that we have available, but at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of work in the field that’s necessary,” Waters said. “Every farmer has a different set of variables out on his farm. We have to see first-hand which practices will work and make sure it fits within the farmer’s operation.”

Critical insight

Seeing prospective sites in person provides critical insight into what type of edge-of-field practice fits best, Lynn said. “If we’ve been to the site, we just have a better idea what would work as we develop plans later on,” he said.

With the information gathered from the field, the specialists will team up later to develop water quality plans for each field they’ve studied, McCoy said. 

“It streamlines the process to develop plans a lot quicker for the landowner because we’ve been on the site and have a good feel for what edge-of-field practices would fit best,” he said.

Work in the field is critical to help winnow the number of projects being sent to engineers for final approval, Waters said. “There’s been a backlog of engineering, and we want to whittle our engineering requests down to the most viable sites,” he said.

Once finalized, the water quality plans are forwarded to engineers, either those at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service or in private practice. The engineers, Waters said, will provide the final approval needed for the potential project.

Meeting with landowners

Finally, one or more of the environmental specialists will meet with the farmer or landowner to discuss the plan and determine if there is interest in implementing the water quality practices. Along with the plan, the coordinator will outline the cost-share opportunities available to farmer and landowners, which can offset a majority of the construction costs.

“Having the plan ready really helps when we meet with farmers,” Tolzin said. “Most of them are interested in doing water quality work, but seeing the plan and how it fits into their farm operation really helps them make the decision to put on the ground.”