Iowa’s water quality work ramps up
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently signed a Farm Bureau-backed bill to provide secure, long-term and dedicated state funding to support farmers’ efforts to improve water quality and conserve soil.
With the passage of the measure, called Senate File 512, the state will commit $282 million of new money to support rural and urban water quality and conservation initiatives over the next 12 years. That funding will be in addition to cost share and other programs that the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) already operated for conservation and water quality through the state’s water quality initiative, which is focused on implementing the practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
The Spokesman recently sat down with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig and discussed how the passage of Senate File 512 will affect the state’s efforts to support farmers’ conservation and water quality efforts. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Will farmers see a change in Iowa’s water quality and conservation programs with the new water quality funding approved?
The passage of Senate File 512 provides us, for the first time, dedicated predictable funding. The difference is now you can plan for those out years. That is a huge step forward, because we have been going year-to-year in appropriations. What the funding allows us to do is really ramp up edge-of-field water quality infrastructure, such as wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffers. That’s really going to be the game-changer for a new dedicated and predictable funding source.
Q: How will farmers and landowners experience this new push by the state to increase the number of edge-of-field water quality projects?
It will likely take the form of cost share, initially. That’s important because it’s hard for a farmer to see the benefit from something like a wetland, bioreactor or a saturated buffer. The benefit is downstream.
The cost-share mechanism probably needs to look a little different than the ones we have used for cover crops and other in-field practices. Because of that, we are interested in all kinds of financing models, with the state investment in targeted areas, but cost share will be a part of it.
Q: How will Iowa farmers be able to access cost share for the edge-of-field practices?
Working in a watershed that is targeted as high priority, we’ll likely have IDALS people identify key sites and then work with the landowners to sign an agreement to install the edge-of-field practice. Then you enter a design phase, which is important. Most of these practices are connected to drainage, so you’ve got to make sure that the drainage system is not negatively impacted by the structure. And then we’ll move on to construction.
You can envision that projects can be done in groups, instead of a one-off here and there. That way we would be able to target some areas and get some economy of scale by putting together teams to find the site, design the practices and build them. So we are talking about a little longer lead time on the front end to get all of those things done.
Q. Is there a certain edge-of-field practice that shows the most promise in improving water quality?
We are looking at all of them (wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffers). They really target themselves to the land. Saturated buffers are a great idea, but they are only good if they are in the right area. If you are in a tiled area, or doing tiling work, they are perfect and are something that we will be very used to doing over time. But they don’t work everywhere. In some cases, maybe a bioreactor would be better fit.
I think that wetlands are an intriguing idea going forward, because you can treat larger watersheds and the wetland pool only takes up about 1 percent of the acreage it is treating. I think that is a way to really address some significant acreage.
Those wetlands sit and do their job year-after-year. Once they are in place, they do their job. They also have other benefits, like habitat and buffer areas around the wetland pool. We like them for a lot of reasons, as well as helping the drainage system they are connected to.
Q: Are existing programs, such as cost share for cover crops, still part of IDALS’ plan?
Yes, we are committed to that. We’ve had five years of cover crop cost share, so there is the potential that we might make some changes in rates or find ways to reach more people. We are also looking at making a larger investment in the three-year pilot program that provides crop insurance premium reductions for farmers who plant cover crops.
That’s an example of an innovative approach to get cover crops and other practices on more acres.
Q: Will the funding from Senate File 512 also increase measurement of water quality?
Measurement will be a big part of it. Over the past five years, we have built a great model to measure water quality with the logic model. If you want to see change in water, you need to see change in the activities on the land and changes in human behavior. We’ve got the right framework; we are measuring countless things within each of those categories. And yes, the new funding does allow us to continue to invest in monitoring and measuring.
Measuring is important because we know that a lot of conservation work gets done without government assistance. That will allow us to see what is going on and give credit where credit is due.
On water monitoring, we really already have good coverage around the state, nearly 90 percent of the Iowa land drains into a stream that is monitored. We’ve got a good sense of what is going on out there. The monitoring that we really like to see is close to where the practice is being done. It really shows those who are making the investment that they really are getting something for it.
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