Iowa water quality initiative is off to a strong start

Bill NortheyIowa’s ground breaking strategy to improve the state’s water quality by reducing nutrient loss is off to a strong and very encouraging start, according to the top officials charged with implementing it.  

“I’m absolutely encouraged about the progress in the nutrient reduction strategy and I think that everyone else in the state should be,” said Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  

Bill Northey, Iowa Agriculture Secretary agrees. “We are seeing a culture change of looking at these conservation practices both for soil erosion control and increasing water quality. They are becoming a normal part of farming and really second nature for a lot of farmers,” he said.  

Both Gipp and Northey point to signs of progress on the water quality initiative all over the state.  

Last fall there was a huge jump in the number of farmers who planted cover crops to stem winter soil erosion and reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from fields. State officials say more than 1,000 farmers took advantage of state cost-share funds and invested millions of their own dollars to plant cover crops on at least 230,000 acres, up from only about 65,000 acres planted in 2012.  

Eight state-backed demonstration projects in targeted watersheds are gearing up this spring to provide farmers with a firsthand look at how soil conservation and water quality projects can be used on their operations. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) plans to choose additional targeted water quality demonstration projects in 2014.  

Iowa’s rural and urban communities are pushing ahead to implement programs to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the state’s streams and rivers from businesses, residences and wastewater treatment plants.  

Changing attitudes
And perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the water quality initiative–officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy–is how it is helping change attitudes about soil conservation and water quality, both Gipp and Northey said. All Iowans, both rural and urban, are stepping up their efforts to improve water quality and are working together as never before to achieve results, the officials said.  

“There is just a focus on water quality today that we have not ever seen before,” Gipp said.  

Farmers, agricultural groups, agribusinesses and community governments are all strongly committed to trimming nutrient loss and improving the state’s water quality, Northey said. In addition, they added, the nutrient reduction strategy is getting strong financial and policy support from the Iowa Legislature and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.  

Science-based program
Launched in 2013, the long-term strategy was developed by IDALS and DNR, with technical support from Iowa State University.  

The portion of the strategy targeted to farms, called non-point sources, is a science and technology-based plan that provides farmers with a number of options, such as cover crops, bioreactors and wetlands, they can voluntarily adopt on their own land reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from their fields.  

IDALS, headed by Northey, is responsible for managing the non-point portion of the strategy. A separate section of the nutrient reduction strategy, which is being implemented in parallel with the agricultural program, is designed to direct efforts to reduce nutrient loss from point sources such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities.  

The overall goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to improve surface water quality in Iowa and help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico. Those nutrients have been linked to the hypoxia zone in the gulf.  

In 2013 the Iowa Legislature allocated $2.4 million to implement the strategy and $10 million in one-time funding for special projects related to improving water quality in the state.  

In addition, lawmakers allocated $1.5 million to establish the Iowa Nutrient Research Center to continue research on methods and tools to reduce nutrient loss and improve water quality.  

Farm groups and state agencies are working to secure additional state funding to continue the momentum in conservation and water quality improvement.  

Working together for solutions
The beauty of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy is that it recognizes that everyone in the state has a part in protecting water quality, Gipp said. “People are figuring out that everyone contributes to the nutrient flow and we’ve gone beyond the finger pointing matches that we used to have,” he said. “That’s a huge step forward.”  

Iowa farmers and landlords are increasingly seeing added conservation measures not as a cost, but as a solid investment in the future of their operations, Northey said. “It’s being seen as one of the drivers that makes land more productive and valuable.”  

Both Gipp and Northey noted that federal environmental officials have highlighted Iowa’s cooperative work and progress to reduce nutrient loss and improve water quality and have touted it as a model for other states to follow.  

“I’ve really been encouraged by the reaction from officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both in regional and national offices,” Northey said. “They see the progress we are making and see that other states are looking at what we are doing to take the lead in this.”  

Value of voluntary approach
That’s a testament, Northey said, to value of the voluntary approach of the Iowa strategy, which allows farmers to research and choose the best approach for their own operations instead of a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach. And that, he said, will encourage more creativity for farmers to develop more effective methods to stem soil loss, retain nutrients and improve water quality, all while increasing yields and efficiency.   

“I think we are unleashing some of the creativity that we know is out there and that’s what we want to do with the voluntary program,” Northey said. “Regulation really does the opposite of that, it freezes you into old technologies.  

“I think folks will look back at this and an era that we planted the seed to start the innovation which led to improved conservation and water quality,” Northey said.  

While they are encouraged by the progress in the water quality initiative, both Northey and Gipp said it’s important for all stakeholders and the public to be patient to give the strategy time to work. It often takes years to show nutrient reductions in surface water and often those improvements can masked by weather, they said.  

Northey said that it is important to show that farmers are continuously improving their conservation practices which will lead to improved water quality. “If we are doing those things we’ll know we are moving in the right direction.”

Gipp added: “The concern that I have is that we as an American population can be impatient, we want to see results today and this is something that is a going to take a while,” he said. “This is not going to be an easy fix and it will take time and continued investment to make it happen.”