riverIowa’s water quality initiative is gaining momentum and enjoys strong support from farmers, lawmakers and federal environmental regulators, Iowa’s top agricultural and environmental officials said last week.

Indeed, Iowa’s strategy, which includes efforts to curb nutrient loss from farm fields and from municipal water treatment plants, is seen as a model and is being used as a guide by other states to develop their own water quality improvement plans, according to Iowa Agricultural Secretary Bill Northey and Chuck Gipp, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) director. The two officials spoke to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation board of directors on Jan. 6.

"Certainly we’ve got a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do, but we are really seeing a lot of progress and momentum all over the state," Northey said.

The initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, was developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) along with the DNR, with technical support from Iowa State University. The overall goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, launched in 2013, is to improve surface water quality in Iowa and help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico.

The agricultural strategy provides farmers with a series of at least 24 practices, such as cover crops, bioreactors and wetlands, to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from their fields.

A large number of Iowa farmers are stepping up to participate in the water quality initiative and have been eager to find ways to reduce nutrient loss from their fields, Northey said. He noted that a recent survey showed that nearly one-quarter of all Iowa farmers have planted cover crops on a portion of their acres. Many others are installing conservation structures, such as bioreactors and terraces, he said.

While the state has provided some cost-sharing funding, farmers are investing a lot of their own money to improve water quality, Northey said. In fiscal 2014, which ended June 30, Iowa farmers invested $13 million in water quality efforts, compared to the state’s $9.5 million effort, IDALS reported.

Iowa’s lawmakers have also shown strong support for the voluntary water quality effort, Northey and Gipp said.

Northey recently requested $7.5 million for the Iowa Water Quality Initiative as part of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 budget requests.

A portion of the state’s water quality funding is being used for demonstration projects in priority watersheds around Iowa, Northey said. "These are like little water quality labs that are helping us see what works and how we can scale up these practices to cover a lot more acres," he said.

Gipp said the initiative is also working because it is designed to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, as well as farm fields.

In addition, they said, officials with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continue to be strong supporters of Iowa’s water quality initiative. "They want to see it work," Gipp said.

Northey said Iowa’s water quality efforts have been backed by the regional office of the EPA in Kansas City, as well as the agency’s officials on the Mississippi River/Gulf Hypoxia taskforce. "They see what we are doing here, and they can see that we are making progress," he said.