Iowa conservation progress and future challenges overview

Iowa farmers are successfully taking on the challenge of additional soil and water quality improvement. Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have published a new study that demonstrates that agricultural conservation practices in the upper Mississippi River watershed can reduce nitrogen inputs to streams and rivers by as much as 34 percent and phosphorus by as much as 10 percent. Until now, nutrient reductions have been difficult to detect in the streams because changes in multiple sources of nutrients (including non-agricultural sources) and natural processes (e.g., hydrological variability, channel erosion) can have confounding influences that conceal the effects of improved farming practices on downstream water quality. The models used in this study overcame these difficulties to help validate that farmers' conservation actions on the land are improving water quality (Garcia et al, May 31, 2016, Regional Effects of Agricultural Conservation Practices on Nutrient Transport in the Upper Mississippi River Basin , Environmental Science & Technology)

We already know that Iowa farmers have substantially changed their tillage and other farming practices in the past decade to conserve topsoil, reduce nutrient losses and improve water quality, according to a February 2016 Iowa Farm & Rural Life Poll . Farmers have invested as much as $2.2 billion in the last 10 years to make those conservation improvements. The survey shows: 

  • 61 percent of farmers say there has been a moderate to major increase in the use of soil testing and other methods to determine optimal fertilizer rates;

  • 57 percent of farmers report a moderate-major increase in these precision farming practices, such as variable rate fertilizer application;

  • 36 percent indicate a moderate-major decrease in fall nitrogen applications and 38 percent say they do more in-season applications;

  • 54 percent report a moderate-major increase in the use of conservation structures such as terraces, grassed waterways and sediment control basins.

But that’s not all. There’s much more evidence of progress in meeting the challenge of additional soil and water quality improvement. Iowa’s erosion rate on cropland decreased 26 percent from 1982 to 2012, now estimated at slightly more than 6 tons per acre (for sheet and rill erosion). Soil erosion on U.S. cropland decreased 44 percent between 1982 and 2012, according to the  USDA's National Resources Inventory report.      

Iowa farmers have enrolled 972,382 acres in the targeted, continuous Conservation Reserve Program, more than 13 percent of the U.S. total and more than any other state ( May 2016, Farm Service Agency). The number includes grass buffers and increases every month and is up 239 percent since 2001. Iowa now has more acres enrolled through the continuous CRP than through general signups (715,663 acres).

There were approximately 472,500 total acres of cover crops planted in Iowa in 2015, an increase of 35 percent compared to 350,000 acres in 2014, and up dramatically from less than 10,000 acres in 2009 ( Iowa Learning Farms 2015 annual report estimate).

The number of farms with land in conservation (enrolled the conservation reserve program, wetlands reserve, farmable wetlands, or conservation reserve enhancement program) has increased more than 33 percent since 1997, according to the 2012 Ag Census. The census also shows Iowa leads the U.S. in conservation tillage with 8.8 million acres.

Iowa farmers have planted this year or intend to plant next year more than 99,000 acres of pollinator habitat through the FSA’s continuous CRP. That’s more than any other state and almost 40 percent of the national total planted in all states. The program helps farmers establish high-quality native wildfl­owers, legumes and shrubs that support pollinators (Iowa Farm Service Agency report, June 2016).

Iowa farmers have restored more than 413,945 acres of wetlands through FSA and NRCS restoration programs, as of March 2016. (Iowa is the 4th best in the country in CRP wetland restoration, behind only MN, ND and SD; February 2016, Farm Service Agency).

Forested acres in Iowa totaled 2.358 million acres in 2012, up 23 percent from 1.911 million in 1982, according to the  USDA's National Resources Inventory report.

Water Quality Reports
These efforts focused primarily on saving topsoil are paying off. Results from 60 river monitoring sites in Iowa from 1998-2012 show phosphorus concentrations decreased at an average rate of 2.6% per year (Wang et. al. 2016. Total Phosphorus Concentration Trends in 40 Iowa Rivers, 1999 to 2013 , Journal of Environmental Quality, Vol. 45 No. 4, p. 1351-1358). The same initial study also showed 80 percent of valid sites don’t show a statistically significant trend (up or down) regarding the direction of nitrate concentrations. Nitrate concentrations increased at an average rate of only 0.05 milligrams per liter per year over the 14-year monitoring period. (Schilling K, January 2015. Nitrate and Phosphorus Concentration Trends in Iowa’s Rivers. Presentation to the Water Resources Coordinating Council, Measures Subcommittee, Des Moines, IA.)

Just seven major conservation practices used on Iowa farms are estimated to remove as much as 28 percent of the nitrate, 38 percent of the total nitrogen and up to 58 percent of the phosphorus than otherwise would be present, according to a 2007 study by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (Kling C et al 2007. Conservation Practices in Iowa: Historical Investments, Water Quality and Gaps. Paper for the Iowa Farm Bureau and its partners. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development and Department of Economics, Iowa State University.)

Seventy-five percent of raw, untreated water in Iowa streams meet or exceeds the EPA nitrate safety standard for finished, treated drinking water (10 parts per million) with values of 7.9 ppm or less. After testing more than 13,000 river water samples in the last 15 years by the Iowa DNR, only about 10% exceeded the EPA drinking water standard. (2015. Stream Water Quality Summary, 2000-2014. Department of Natural Resources.) Also, the vast majority of water samples taken in the last 5 years show lower nitrate levels compared to those taken 15 years ago. Water quality is improving in recent years despite temporary, weather-induced spikes. (IFBF Analysis of Department of Natural Resources Stream Water Quality annual reports.)

In addition, a 2012 study found no statistically significant increasing trend (or a steady trend) in Raccoon River nitrogen concentrations for the period of 1992-2008. It found that rainfall and temperature contribute more to a seasonal variation in N concentrations in the Raccoon than anything else (Jayasinghe et al. 2012. Evaluation of Variation in Nitrogen Concentration Levels in the Raccoon River Watershed in Iowa, Journal of Environmental Quality . Vol. 41 No. 5, p. 1557-1565).

These results have since been confirmed elsewhere.

  • Nitrates in Raccoon River have trended lower in the past 15 years despite a significant increase in corn acres in the watershed during that time. Analysis of more than 10,000 water samples, commercial fertilizer receipts, manure records on 468 fields gathered by ISA’s On-Farm network, shows on average nitrate levels in the Raccoon River have trended down 0.28 milligrams per liter per year since 1999, or 4.2 mg/l over 15 years. ( Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance 2013. Annual report. February 2014, Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network Conference; Study Shows Added Corn Acres in Raccoon River Watershed Did Not Raise Nitrate Delivery Levels, June 6, 2016. The Spokesman, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation website news report on forthcoming journal article).

  • Annual “flow-normalized” nitrate concentration and flux in the Iowa and Illinois Rivers from 1980 through 2010 decreased by 11 to 15 percent, according to a report from the National Water-Quality Assessment Program of the U.S. Geological Survey. These estimates extend previous results two years, strengthening the trends suggesting that management practices undertaken by farmers in the last decade or so may be having the effect of reducing nitrate fluxes. (Murphy, J.C., Hirsch, R.M., and Sprague, L.A., 2013, Nitrate in the Mississippi River and its tributaries, 1980–2010—An update: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5169, 31 p).

These results also seem consistent with a 2014 U.S. Geological Survey study of several decades of nitrate concentration and flow data from 10 major Iowa Rivers indicating that concentrations of nitrate decreased from 2000 to 2012 in all basins. The declining concentration trends can be attributed to both very high and very low discharges, long subsurface residence times, dilution of N and depletion of stored N in years with high discharge, and reduced N transport and increased N storage in low-discharge years. (Green, C. T., B. A. Bekins, S. J. Kalkhoff, R. M. Hirsch, L. Liao, and K. K. Barnes (2014), Decadal surface water quality trends under variable climate, land use, and hydrogeochemical setting in Iowa, USA , Water Resour. Res., 50, 2425–2443).

Also, an Iowa Statewide Rural Well Water Survey Phase 2 (SWRL2) by the University of Io­wa showed a decline in the number of wells with detections of nitrates and herbicides, including atrazine.  The survey of 473 rural wells in 2006-2008 showed a decline in numbers of wells with pesticides and nitrates detected, and very low concentrations present when detections occurred. Results from this follow-up to a survey of rural wells in 1988-89 include:

  • No well had a pesticide exceeding or even close to drinking water standards.

  • Atrazine was detected at very low concentrations in only 8 percent of the wells surveyed (the maximum detected was 0.5 parts per billion compared with an EPA maximum contaminant level of 3 ppb), and other herbicides were detected at low levels in less than 2 percent of wells.

  • Nitrate detections were down 11 percent from 20 years ago.

The Iowa DNR’s drinking water compliance report further documents the progress by noting that the number of nitrate violations in public water systems were very similar to the previous five years. Only 10 public water systems exceeded the federal health-based nitrate limit of 10 parts per million out of 1,878 systems in 2015. That means 99.9 percent don’t exceed the standard. Overall, there were only 16 total exceedances at the 10 water systems in 2015. ( State of Iowa Public Drinking Water Program 2015 Annual Compliance Report, June 2016.)

Iowa Soils, Weather and Nitrogen Management
Iowans concerned about their drinking water should know that nitrates are naturally occurring, anywhere there’s soil. In Iowa, nitrogen is especially abundant in soil, making it rich and fertile for growing crops. Because of a number of factors, including rainfall and rural and urban infrastructure, nitrate levels can vary.

The primary reason for nitrate loss is not the mismanagement of nitrogen fertilizer or farmer behavior, according to Iowa State University. Most nitrate loss to Iowa streams is caused by mismatched timing between the uptake of nitrate by growing crops and the natural microbial production of nitrate from nitrogen found in native soil organic matter. Average Iowa soil contains 10,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre in organic matter (compared with the 150-200 pounds of inorganic nitrogen that a farmer might apply during the growing season). This organic nitrogen is not susceptible to loss. However, when the soil is warm and moist, microbes transform the organic nitrogen to nitrate. This nitrate is susceptible to loss and can cause short-term spikes in river nitrates when crops aren’t growing. Almost all nitrate loss to Iowa waterways occurs when soils are warm and moist and crops are not rapidly using soil nitrate. If there is no crop to use soil nitrate, some can be lost — especially during heavy rainfall. (Helmers M., Castellano M. 2015. Soil Nitrogen Cycling & Budgeting. Presentation to the Iowa Senate Natural Resources committee, State Capitol, Des Moines, IA.)

The current weather pattern is compounding this situation. Iowa is trending toward more frequent wet springs. Iowa’s weather story, especially in the last decade, has come in the form of a lot of rain at the wrong times – especially in the spring. According to historical data, between 1873 and 1980 Iowa experienced an abnormally wet spring once every ten years. Since 1980 – that number has jumped to once every three (Kuboushek E. March 26, 2015. Iowa’s Volatile Weather Story, Chris Anderson Ph.D., Iowa State University Climate Risk Analyst. Iowa Soybean Association Advance, On-Farm Network publication).

All this happening between 1980 and 2010, while U.S. farmers nearly doubled corn production using slightly fewer fertilizer nutrients than were used in 1980.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), farmers grew 6.64 billion bushels of corn using 3.9 pounds of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for each bushel in 1980. In 2010 they grew 12.45 billion bushels using 1.6 pounds of nutrients per bushel produced. In total, this represents an 87.5 percent increase in production with 4 percent fewer nutrients during that same timeframe (Mathers K, May 31, 2011. 1980-2010: U.S. Corn Production Nearly Doubles Using Slightly Fewer Nutrients. The Fertilizer Institute News Release).

Livestock Improvements
Livestock producers in Iowa have also made significant improvements in taking care of the environment and reducing runoff in past two decades, especially the last 10 years. Aerial surveillance by EPA of western Iowa feedlots indicates nine out of 10 are in compliance. (Statement by Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator, EPA Region 7, August 2012)

Private organizations’ educational efforts and the Iowa DNR’s informal enforcement policy has assisted in steadily reducing the rate of manure discharges from 5.2% to 2.5% over the past 10 years among confined feeding operations larger than 1,000 animal units. This policy has also contributed to a declining rate of water quality impacts as a result of a manure discharge. Further, even with an increasing number of regulated farms, the annual number of spills has not trended upward in the last 10 years (IFBF analysis, public comment on proposed Chapter 17 rule revision, August 2012).

Other Conservation Program Results
Other signs of conservation progress include:

  • There are 81 active, ongoing IDALS/DNR/EPA watershed projects in 65 Iowa counties (IDALS Division of Soil Conservation staff report, February 2016).
  • Established in 1973, Iowa’s Conservation Cost Share Program is the cornerstone of soil conservation and water quality protection in Iowa. Through this program and their own funds, 1,904 landowners invested almost $22.6 million in conservation practices (such as terraces, waterways, grade stabilization structures and water and sediment basins, as well as management practices) in 2015, with landowners paying 50 percent or more of the total cost of installing these practices ( IDALS Cost Share Annual Report, 2016).
  • The average long-term cost share rate for all IDALS programs is 41.2 percent (2009-2015). In other words, an IDALS investment of $4,120 leverages a $5,880 farmer contribution, enough to complete a $10,000 conservation practice. These funds come from, in part, state income tax payments by farmers (IDALS staff report, February 2016).
  • More than $55.8 million was invested by state and federal agencies in Iowa through just 15 major land treatment programs during 2015 (IDALS Land Treatment by County Spreadsheet, November 2015).
  • Iowa’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program has strategically restored 77 wetlands designed to remove 40-70 percent of the nitrate they receive in storm water flow. There are six more scheduled for restoration in 2016. These 83 wetlands total 891 acres of wetland pool, surrounded by 2,800 acres of buffer and will protect more than 122,300 watershed acres by removing an estimated 100,300 tons of nitrogen over their lifetimes. Their estimated annual nitrogen removal capacity annually is more than 1.3 million pounds. The nitrate removal cost is 26 cents per pound, less than the current (December 2015) cost of nitrogen fertilizer. Also, another 12 CREP projects are under development for 2016, and beyond that there is a 4-5 year waiting list of landowners wanting to enroll ( Iowa CREP annual report, 2015).
  • Estimated pollutant load reductions resulting from conservation practices installed by farmers in 17 different federal Clean Water Act Section 319-funded watershed projects in 2015 reduced sediment reaching Iowa’s waters by an estimated 14,732 tons, phosphorus by 19,967 pounds, and nitrogen by 26,763 pounds per year, according to the Iowa DNR. This was accomplished through the establishment of 360 grassed waterways, sediment control structures, terraces, filter and buffer strips, and stream-bank and shoreline stabilization practices and structures. The DNR has approved 24 watershed management plans, opening up funding opportunities to help those groups put their plans in action. At least another six plans are under development. Since 2009, the DNR has awarded $617,904 in grant funding to help Iowans gather information and create plans to improve their water quality. Learn more in the latest collection of success stories about the program. In addition, the DNR has helped create 14 watershed management authorities in the state.
  • The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided more than $177 million in financial assistance for environmental improvements on more than 1.7 million acres to more than 7,600 Iowa agricultural producers in fiscal years 2012-2015, according to its Program Accomplishments reports.
  • The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided more than $38 million in financial assistance for environmental improvements to Iowa agricultural producers in fiscal year 2015, according to its FY 2015 Program Accomplishments Report, including financial assistance through three major programs ( Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program). These funds were used by 1,909 producers to treat resource concerns on 664,161 acres. EQIP led the way in Iowa with more than $16.9 million in funding in FY 2015. This funding included 899 contracts treating 84,388 acres across the state. EQIP provides farmers assistance to install conservation practices such as terraces, grassed waterways, waste storage facilities, prescribed grazing, and nutrient and pest management. At the end of FY15 (September 30, 2015) there was a backlog of 2,130 unfunded applications totaling $44.8 million. The Conservation Stewardship Program obligated $11.6 million to Iowa farmers, covering 201,208 acres through 1,000 contracts in fiscal year 2015.The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (wetland restoration programs) obligated $10 million through 10 contracts to Iowa landowners resulting in 2,161 acres of restored wetlands and associated buffer and treatment areas.

Unfortunately, funding to meet farmer demand for most of these programs always seems to fall short.  Iowa farmers’ requests for state cost-share dollars (the Iowa Conservation Cost-Share Fund) to match with their own money to protect Iowa’s soil and water exceeded funds available by more than $18.5 million.

That’s one reason why farmers continually look for innovations in their farm business organization, risk management arrangements and production practices that allow them to produce more with less. Fewer labor hours and less land are used today than 30 years ago, and the use of genetically engineered seeds and soil management practices and no-till have dampened increases in machinery, fuel, and pesticide use ( The Changing Organization of U.S. Farming, USDA ERS, December 2011).       

  • Continuous corn acres declined from 25 percent to 17 percent of acreage;

  • Conservation tillage accounts for 41 percent of US cropland in 2004, compared with only 26 percent in 1989.

  • The increase in the conservation tillage category (greater than 30% residue on the surface) comes almost entirely from no-till adoption, up from 14 million acres in 1989 to 63 million in 2004.

  • The development of larger and faster equipment, information and GPS technologies, and precision agriculture tools such as yield monitors and variable rate equipment allows farmers to better match seed, fertilizer, and pesticide applications to areas within a field where they are most needed. The development of genetically engineered seeds and adoption of crop varieties with herbicide tolerance (HT) and/or resistance to specific pests (Bt) has facilitated a shift to less intensive tillage systems, particularly no-till.

These are tremendous facts about agricultural conservation progress that we all need to acknowledge. It shows farmers are doing a better job managing their soils, crop protection and nutrient products. Farmers are more aware and careful today. It also shows that educational efforts and the actions of farmers have been successful.

Impaired Waters
Yet, a few still say “Iowa’s waters are the dirtiest in the nation.” The EPA’s web site for state impaired waters shows there are 23 states (45 percent) that have more impaired waters than Iowa. Another way to look at this data is that Iowa has 571 impaired water segments out of a total of 42,457 nationally. That's 1.3 percent of the national total. Iowa hardly has the direst waters in the nation.

Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy
Clearly, these facts demonstrate Iowa has accepted the challenge of protecting soil. Now there’s a new focus is in nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in surface water, which is influenced by weather, stream flows and natural in-stream processes (steam bed and bank erosion), leading to a federal program to control hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa farmers know this challenge is bigger than just them; a truly effective approach also needs to take into account urban infrastructure, weather variability, and industry through collaborative partnerships. Everyone has a role to play in protecting water quality.

So Iowa has undertaken a new challenge, a collaborative, research-based strategy for improving water quality – the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It’s implementation program for farms is called the Water Quality Initiative, with progress evaluated and reported by independent researchers from Iowa State University. This comprehensive approach allows us to work with farmers to help them adopt proven practices that work best for their farms.

The state’s strategy is off to a great start in its first three years. Farmers and 100 local organizations are working together in 45 demonstration projects in targeted watersheds to help implement and demonstrate water quality practices. This includes 16 targeted ag demonstration projects, 7 projects focused on expanding the use and innovative delivery of water quality practices, and 22 urban water quality demonstration projects. These partners will provide more than $19 million dollars to go with more than $12 million in state funding going to these projects.

In the last year alone, state and private organizations have invested at least $105 million in in implementation programs for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The second annual report for the strategy also notes there have been at least 637 field days, 269 presentations, and 198 conferences attended by more than 42,000 farmers and others during the last year. It also notes more than 500 print stories, newsletters and radio or television reports reaching more than 4.7 million people.  An Iowa Farm & Rural Life poll shows that roughly 80 percent of Iowa farmers have some knowledge of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Most poll respondents (76 percent) expressed concern about agriculture’s impacts on water quality, and believed that Iowa farmers should do more to address nutrient loss. The annual reports confirm they are.

And it’s not just about farms. There are also 130 municipal and industrial waste treatment plants that treat more than 1 million gallons of wastewater a day and handle 80 percent of all municipal wastewater for 60 percent of Iowans. At least 68 plants are conducting feasibility studies and will be negotiating construction schedules and amending permits to install new biological nutrient removal technology.

These are just a few of the early accomplishments. Challenges remain, but farmers and cities are working together. More will happen as additional funding is identified by the Legislature. Our conservation programs are certainly working better, smarter. Even better days are ahead.

This document is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice for your specific situation or to infer an attorney-client relationship. Please contact your legal representative with any questions regarding your rights and available options. This document was last updated June 30, 2016 and may not reflect the most recent changes in the law. For additional information, contact your county Farm Bureau office.