Iowa continues to show progress on reducing nutrient loss from farm fields and other sources to improve water quality, according to the latest update of the state’s Water Quality Initiative.

The revised final copy of the annual progress report on the initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, was issued last week. It contains changes based on public comment and measures progress in the 12 months ending May 31, 2017.

Issued by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stew­ardship (IDALS) and the Iowa De­­partment of Natural Resources (DNR), the final report shows the farmers are adopting more practices, like cover crops, that research has shown to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from fields. They are also installing more edge-of-field practices, such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands, to improve the quality of the state’s streams, rivers and lakes.

Farmer investments

In addition, the report showed that Iowa farmers are investing millions of dollars of their own money in efforts to improve water quality. That investment, along with state and federal matching funds, raised funding for water quality efforts for the reporting period to more than $176 million (excluding CRP payments), up more than $13 million.

Last year, the Legislature provided nearly $10.6 million for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was an increase of $975,000 from the previous year.  This money serves as a catalyst for additional landowner and private organizations’ investments.

The growth of practices by farmers to improve water quality, as well as the private investment, track with recent surveys of members by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF). The Farm Bureau survey, taken in fall 2017, showed that 87 percent of members surveyed say they are using conservation practices on their farms and 71 percent have plans to apply new conservation practices in the next five years.

In addition, the Farm Bureau survey showed that 73 percent of members surveyed are spending their own money to apply conservation practices.

“This report, along with the Farm Bureau survey, clearly shows that Iowa farmers are invested in improving the states’ water quality through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative,” said Rick Robinson, IFBF environmental policy advisor. “They are accepting the challenge and not waiting around for cost share dollars, but are going above and beyond to continue the conservation progress.”  

Other metrics

Some of the findings of the Water Quality Initiative report showed:

• Iowa farmers planted more than 623,000 acres of cover crops in 2016, up from only 15,000 in 2011.

• Terraces and basins for water or sediment control now treat 250,000 acres, and there are 36 nitrogen removal wetlands in the state.

• Outreach events on water quality effectively doubled in the past year to 474, with a total of 54,500 attendees. In addition, an Iowa State University survey showed that 77 percent of farmers surveyed reported that they were knowledgeable about the water quality initiative, a gain of 9 percent over a year earlier.

While they celebrated the pro­gress, Iowa agriculture leaders said there is still plenty of work to do to reach the goals set in the Water Quality Initiative.

“There are a wide variety of factors that impact water quality, and this report seeks to identify and quantify all of the work being done,” said Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “We continue to see progress among all aspects of measures that have been identified. We just need to continue to accelerate and scale-up our efforts,” he said.