Polk County farmer Kurt Lehman admits to having some doubts the first time he heard about ambitious plans for a "water quality blitz" adding 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors on farms in Polk and Dallas counties with minimal landowner effort or expense.

“(I thought) it sounds great, but it’s never going to happen. It’s too big,” re­­called Lehman, a Polk County Farm Bureau member.

Lehman gladly admitted his doubts were dispelled as he hosted the kickoff event earlier this summer for the Central Iowa Water Quality Infrastructure project on his farm north of Ankeny, where a series of saturated buffers are being installed.

Project organizers took care of the paperwork, secured funding and hired contractors to install the practices, keeping him in the loop throughout the process and making sure everything is going according to plan, Lehman said.

“These guys have been great to work with,” he said. “You would not believe how much they’re out here.”

The project is a collaboration of the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District, Polk County, City of Des Moines, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition.

It creates a new framework to streamline and scale up the adoption of saturated buffers and bioreactors by simplifying the financing and construction process for landowners in priority watersheds.

“This project creates a model that allows us to speed up the pace at which we’re adding more soil health and water quality practices,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig. “Other communities are watching what’s happening here. We know that success here will lead to successful projects in other priority watersheds around the state.”

Phase 1 of the Central Iowa Water Quality Infrastructure pro­ject is expected to take about a year to complete. Crews are installing 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors on the edge of farm fields along Fourmile, Mud, Camp, Spring and Walnut creeks to protect water quality and support recreational opportunities in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. Phase 2 is expected to include another 150 sites and additional counties and partners.

John Swanson, watershed management authority coordinator with Polk County Public Works, said there was a need to simplify the process for installing edge-of-field water quality practices. Only about five saturated buffers had been installed in the Fourmile Creek Watershed in the previous decade, he noted.

Swanson said sites were sel­ected using mapping tools that consider topography, stream bank height and soil types to identify project sites that will have the greatest impact on water quality. Landowners are compensated for temporary construction easements that give contractors access to sites.

“We felt there was a way we could install dozens of these with no impact to the landowner,” said Swanson. “We’re ready to ramp it up. These practices work. We just have to find a way to do it more efficiently.”
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