A $9.5 million federal grant will boost the efforts of Iowa farmers to improve water quality by expanding public-private partnerships in key watersheds, conservation leaders said last week.

"This project is going to help us scale up conservation planning and practices in priority watersheds," said Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA). "It will unite public and private, ag and urban, and point source and nonpoint source partners behind the watershed approach."

The grant from the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is the largest awarded this year across all 50 states. Those funds will be leveraged with $4.75 million in state funding and $33 million in investments from the private sector, bringing the total investment to more than $47 million to engage farmers and scale up water quality efforts as part of the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The project, led by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and IAWA, involves 45 private and public sector partners in five key Iowa watersheds.

Partnerships are the key

"This is something we’ve seen time and again — partnerships are the key," said Mike Naig, Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture. "Everyone has a part to play. The days of pointing fingers should be over. We all need to take responsibility for our part in finding solutions."

The initiative will be focused in targeted watersheds within the North Raccoon, South Skunk, Lake Red Rock, Middle Cedar and Upper Cedar watersheds.

Under the project, local ag retailers, seed companies and ag organizations will engage with farmers to deliver water quality practices and technologies proven to have a significant impact on reducing losses of nitrogen and phosphorus while maintaining or increasing farm productivity. Implementing key practices — including cover crops, nutrient management, strip-till and no-till, drainage water management, bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands — on 150,000 acres could keep 900,000 pounds of nitrate and 16,000 pounds of phosphorus out of the state’s waterways, officials said.

"This project will help Iowa farmers simultaneously improve their profitability and environmental performance," McMahon said.

Crop advisor focus

One of the project partners is WinField Solutions, which will work through its crop advisors to help farmers implement conservation practices as part of their whole farm operation, said Todd Peterson, stewardship lead at WinField.

"We believe that in addition to talking about crop plans and fertility plans, we really ought to be talking about your conservation plans," said Peterson. "Farmers don’t know where to go for this information. We have a big job ahead of us, but we have an opportunity to make a big difference."

The cooperative effort also provides an opportunity to prove the value of Iowa’s voluntary, targeted conservation approach rather than mandatory, one-size-fits-all regulations, Peterson said. WinField, a division of Land O’Lakes, also works extensively in Minnesota, which is wrestling with how to implement a mandatory buffer law passed last year by its state legislature.

"These are two states that everyone is going to be watching to see what’s working," said Peterson.

Voluntary, not optional

Naig said Iowa’s "voluntary but not optional" conservation approach allows farmers to pick practices that work best on their farm instead of mandating specific measures that may not work across all landscapes or may become outdated as new technology emerges.

"We don’t want to be running around the state with a tape measure to make sure a buffer is the right width," he said. "We’re going to learn while we do this. The strategy will change and amend over time."

Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, also voiced support for farmer-led conservation efforts, which he said can help bridge the divide created by a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties.

"This is a prime example of the urban-rural collaboration that is needed to solve Iowa’s water quality problems," he said. "We’ve been engaged in this issue. We want to move the ball forward in a constructive way."