A partnership of Iowa cities, farmers and government agencies has launched a plan to build up to six strategically placed wetlands to help improve water quality and create wildlife and pollinator habitat in eastern Iowa’s Middle Cedar watershed.

The wetlands, funded through a $1.15 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Gulf of Mexico program, are expected to reduce downstream nitrogen loads by 58,000 pounds per year in the watershed. That will aid water quality efforts in communities, including Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls and Waterloo, which rely on the Cedar River and its tributaries for a portion of their water supplies.

“This is really good news, and it shows the value of our cooperative approach to water quality,” said Iowa Ag­­riculture Secretary Mike Naig. “When you can count on the major cities in the watershed, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls and Waterloo, as partners in this effort, that’s a very good thing and will benefit everyone in Iowa.”

The key to Iowa’s water quality program, Naig said, is fostering cooperation among farmers, cities and others to work together, Naig said.

Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utilities director, said the EPA grant for wetland construction is a testament of the success of the cooperative approach to address water quality in the Cedar River. “This additional agreement between the department and the EPA toward our shared goals is an exciting new opportunity to advance this important work,” he said.

Along with the three eastern Iowa cities, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) is working with Iowa State University (ISU), the Iowa Farm Bur­­eau Federation and other farm organizations to find sites for the wetlands and to construct them, Naig said.

The partners are currently working to identify potential locations for the wetlands and are meeting with interested landowners. It expects to begin building the wetlands in 2020.

ISU research has shown that properly sized and placed wetlands are one of the most effective nitrate removal practices in Iowa’s landscapes. The research shows wetlands built over the years through Iowa’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement program remove 30% to 70% of nitrate from tile water entering the wetland.

Wetlands also provide ideal habitat for wildlife and pollinators, Naig said. “They are a practice that has a wide range of benefits,” he said.

The grant from the EPA, Naig said, is an endorsement of Iowa’s cooperative strategy to improve water quality by implementing conservation practices in high-priority watersheds, such as the Middle Cedar. “It’s really a recognition that we are moving in the right direction on water quality here in Iowa.”

The Middle Cedar watershed project is part of more than 80 projects across the state to help implement and demonstrate water quality practices. This includes nine planning and development projects, 13 targeted watershed projects, seven projects focused on expanding the use and innovative delivery of water quality practices and 55 urban water quality demonstration projects. More than 320 organizations are participating in these projects.

To date, Iowa has awarded these projects over $29.5 million in funding, while private partners and landowners invested more than $49 million.