Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Terry Branstad, the Iowa Legislature, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Chuck Gipp we now have a science-based Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that is on the ground and running. This strategy focuses on helping farmers, cities and industries make additional improvement in priority Iowa watersheds, and using our conservation funds and tax dollars to get the most reduction for the least cost.
Farmers, soil conservation leaders and agribusinesses in the priority watersheds are already talking to their crop consultants, extension specialists and university scientists about additional practices and technologies that they are considering and adopting.
Cover crops are getting a lot of attention this year, but the strategy identifies at least 38 different example technologies or management practice options for consideration. The choices are as varied as Iowa soils and weather.
It’s true that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to employing additional nutrient reduction practices to achieve a long-term solution.
Regulations have not given us the progress farmers have achieved so far, and will not provide the innovations needed for the future. There’s just no reasonable way to regulate that kind of success on 92,000 unique Iowa farms.
Farmers are using the best nutrient management practices that are based in sound science and experience, but there’s always room for improvement. Farmers are always looking for new ways to save money and protect water.
The facts are that farmers have been doing a good job: The long-term trend-lines are declining for soil erosion rates (down 33 percent from 1982-2007), pesticides in surface water (steady or declining levels of 11 herbicides and insecticides in Iowa and other Corn Belt waterways from 1996 to 2006) and nitrates in rural wells (nitrate detections down 11 percent from 20 years ago), for example.
Raccoon River example
That’s also true for the Raccoon River, despite the seasonal spike in nitrates we saw this year as a result of last year’s drought and record spring rainfall (the most for April and May in 141 years of records).
A study published last year found no statistically significant increasing trend in nitrogen concentrations for the period of 1992-2008. It also found that rainfall and temperature contribute more to seasonal variations in nitrate concentrations than anything else. (Evaluation of Variation in Nitrogen Concentration Levels in the Raccoon River Watershed in Iowa, Journal of Environmental Quality, 2012).
Also, recent analysis of daily nitrate concentrations since 2006 from data published on the Des Moines Water Works website shows a statistically significant, long-term downward trend of nitrates in the Raccoon River, despite the weather-induced spike this spring.
Building on success
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy builds on the proven success of voluntary watershed and conservation programs. Information is going out now on the application process for new watershed demonstration and cost-share funds for nine priority large watersheds.
Smaller sub-watersheds will apply for these new funds as part of organized watershed demonstration projects.
New cost-share funds are also available to farmers statewide to try cover crops, nitrogen inhibitors and strip till or no-till. Our experience is that farmers learn from these demonstrations and apply the new practices and technologies on their farms. There are hundreds of examples of this successful approach to improving water quality.
All told, there’s almost $30 million in new or continued state funding for projects, and practices will help reduce nutrient loss, not counting what most farmers are doing on their own. The new funding and strategic coordination for a state nutrient reduction goal will accelerate past success.
The additional work and commitments by Iowa’s farmers are also going to help municipal and industrial waste treatment plants reduce their treatment costs. We’re all in this together, and now we’ve got a clear path forward that’s a commonsense practical approach for Iowa.
Robinson is environmental policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.