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Iowa farmers make true progress on water quality

Craig Hill

Environmental activists continue to misinform Iowans about the progress our state’s farmers are making in improving water quality. The latest attack, by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC), tried to portray the Iowa water quality initiative as an ineffective, ill-conceived effort which will require a century or more to reach stated goals.

To make its point, the IEC appears to purposely confuse the economic comparison scenarios outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) with the plan’s goals and a federally established baseline used to measure progress. The activist group then minimizes farmers’ progress on water quality practices and says that agriculture is not stepping up to the challenge of improving water quality.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Iowa farmers have made tremendous progress on improving water quality during the six years since launching the statewide, comprehensive INRS based on proven science. In order to understand the scope of the issue and measure success, it was necessary to develop a baseline, consistent with the federal Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan, which was established by Iowa State University after the launch of the INRS. To view that baseline and progress, check out page 9 of the 2017-18 INRS progress report from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Iowa farmers are not slowing down as they take on the challenge of improving water quality. They are planting more cover crops, adding wetlands, installing terraces and investing in a whole range of other water quality practices outlined in the initial plan, despite a tough ag economy and historically erratic weather. How do we know these farmer-led efforts to improve water quality will work? Because phosphorus loss trends in Iowa show evidence of success from farmers’ voluntary efforts.

Lessons learned from farmers’ efforts over decades to reduce soil erosion and adopt conservation tillage helped to slash current phosphorus loads in Iowa rivers and streams by 22% compared to the federal baseline period of 1980 to 1996, according to a recent study by Iowa State University (ISU). That’s very close to the 29% reduction goal in phosphorus losses outlined in the water quality strategy. It also dovetails with data showing that Iowa’s soil erosion is down 28% during three decades ending in 2015. This same voluntary approach that was so successful in reducing phosphorus losses is now being applied to make significant cuts in nitrogen loss.

It’s a big task, considering Iowa’s nutrient-rich landscapes and the unprecedented rainfall events across the state during the past several years. But Iowa farmers have shown they are up to the challenge and are ready and willing to take it on. For example:

  • A survey of Iowa ag retailers shows that farmers have sharply increased their plantings of cover crops, which ISU research shows can reduce nitrogen by more than 30 percent. The survey by the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council showed that farmers planted 1.5 million acres of cover crops in 2017, up from fewer than 15,000 acres when the water quality strategy was launched in 2013. All indications are that farmers planted that many, or more, acres to cover crops in 2018 and are gearing up to plant even more in 2019.
  • During the past five years as many as 8,000 Iowa farmers, including 4,600 first-time users, signed up to use a practice focused on water quality.
  • Farmers continue to invest in more structural practices, such as terraces, sediment basins and wetlands, to improve water quality, even in a difficult economy. Researchers from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University, using sophisticated imagery systems, identified a current $6.2 billion worth of investments in water improvement practices across Iowa over time.

The state of Iowa has also stepped up to aid farmers by pledging $29.5 million to match the more than $49 million invested by farmers and other organizations, including the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF).

In addition to that, Farm Bureau was also a strong supporter of Senate File 512, which passed in 2018 and will provide an unprecedented $270 million in dedicated, sustainable water quality funding over the next 11 years. This investment is just now starting to kick in and is leveraging farmers’ own water quality efforts.

The IEC’s misleading analysis also discounts the role that technology will play in reaching nutrient goals. As a farmer, I’ve seen the adoption of technology, such as conservation tillage, improved genetics and precision equipment, transform agriculture and help us increase production of crops and livestock while using fewer resources and leaving a lighter footprint on the land.

It’s the same for water quality, where we are already seeing the development of new technologies, such as saturated buffers, contribute to farmers’ own efforts. The Iowa Nutrient Research Center at ISU is currently conducting more than 30 research projects aimed at improving water quality. And since 2013 the center has committed $8.7 million to fund 76 projects led by scientists at Iowa’s three state universities that are focused on evaluating the performance of current conservation practices and developing new approaches to reducing nutrient loss from agricultural landscapes.

The fact is, more and better data is available and being used now than when the INRS was first launched. And that’s good news for water quality.

Interestingly, in my travels around the country, I often hear that Iowa is recognized as a leader in water quality efforts. Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as regulators in other states, often hold up Iowa’s water quality efforts as example of effective programs that will lead to long-term sustainable water quality improvements. We’ve also had farmers from other states, and from other countries, visit Iowa to get a look at our water quality efforts so they can duplicate them back home.

We know that improving Iowa’s water quality and meeting the goals of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative will take a sustained and collaborative effort. But, the regulatory approach, prescribed by the Iowa Environmental Council and other activist groups, is not the solution. A sustained, comprehensive, proven-plan which takes into account urban infrastructure, weather variability and agriculture and incorporates the latest technology to improve water quality from all sources, is. If we stop finger-pointing and start working together, we can make great things happen for Iowa.

By Craig Hill. Hill is President of IFBF.



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