Measuring Iowa's water quality progress: The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 11

The Spokesman Speaks Podcast


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Welcome to Episode 11 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this Earth Day episode, we reveal the most extensive survey of Iowa's conservation progress and discuss laser technology that actually quantifies the conservation structures on Iowa's landscape.


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Narrator: Since 1934, Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now, here's your host, Laurie Johns.

Laurie Johns: Happy Earth Day and welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our April 22nd episode. Thanks for joining us. If you're eager to hear about Iowa's water quality progress and how that progress is being measured, you've come to the right place. Now critics like to see that progress isn't happening or isn't happening fast enough because the nutrient reduction strategy is voluntary, but those critics haven't been paying attention or perhaps they just haven't talked to the people who are putting in conservation practices and the experts who are measuring them. So today's episode will introduce you to the most extensive survey of Iowa's conservation progress and laser technology that is able to document and measure the number and the impact of the conservation structures on Iowa's landscape. All set? Let's start with Shawn Richmond. He's the Director of Environmental Technology for Iowa's Nutrient Research and Education Council. I recently interviewed Shawn for the Iowa Minute and that's currently running on TV stations around the state. But as you've heard me say before, it's tough to capture everything that needs to be said in a minute, especially when it comes to complex issues like water quality. So we're excited to bring you, our podcast listeners, more of that interview that I had with Shawn. Listen in. I'm here with Shawn Richmond and we're here talking about water. Conservation is so important right now as farmers and everyone is watching all this water move through the state from the big brutal winter storm. Snow melt and then more rain on top of that snow. It's just been a difficult situation to manage and farmers are certainly keeping a keen eye on it. Conservation's important to farmers and Shawn, you certainly know that. Where do we stand right now in the state?

Shawn Richmond: You know, I think we're in a great place in Iowa right now. Certainly given the past investments that farmers have made over the past several decades to really help control and manage the weather, the water that flows over and through our soils across the state. We're fortunate to have a lot of great science from the Iowa State University and other surrounding states that helps advise us on what the practices are that we can do to help reduce our nutrient losses and address these weather variables in a really proactive manner.

Laurie Johns: It's really hard to get a handle on where we stand. There are so many different factors.

Shawn Richmond: So, we developed a new process with Iowa State to allow us to go in and look at the ag retailer level and survey their customers and get very accurate field information about the use of tillage. You know, nitrogen and phosphorus application, right? It's all of the infield best management practices that we're interested in. And then we have some science on that'll tell us what the impacts will be. This has never been done before in the state of Iowa, a very new effort. It required a public private partnership so that we could have, you know, make sure we maintain confidentiality of individual information while getting the aggregate level of detail that we need to provide the information about where we're at as a whole. It's probably the most accurate information we've ever had. It certainly relates to the agronomy products and practices taking place on a field by field basis approaches in the past. We're good at estimating that based off of large scale sales data, portioning that out. Now we have very fine level detail of what the specific as applied rate was on hundreds of farm fields across the state that it gives us a good idea, a much better idea, of where we're really at on those practices. And so, it’s been an important process to work out. Great support from the ag retailers and crop advisors across the state to help us gather that information. Really puts us in a position we've never been in before as far as the accuracy and amount of information we've been able to collect. To the efforts of the Iowa nutrient research and education council, we're helping to measure where we're at, and progress towards those goals and the adoption levels of practices. We just recently completed a 2017 crop your survey for the entire state. Great information coming out of that. Shows by and large, the vast majority of tillage is either conservation or no-till. So we've done a lot to reduce those types of practices and the movement of soil and we've also adopted a lot of great things as far as nitrogen management. The statewide average nitrogen rates we've measured through our surveys show that we're very much in line across the state with what the university recommendations would be. So that shows that we're really in line with what the economic optimum recommendations would be. We're doing a good job playing the right source, right time, right place, and all those good things associated with that to really help solve these issues while also maintaining the productivity on the farm.

Laurie Johns: So, phosphorus targets, well, we know there's a 45% reduction target that we've got to hit.

Shawn Richmond: Yeah. So you know, there's 45% reduction targets under the nutrient strategy for phosphorous and nitrogen. Phosphorus is really where a lot of the conservation work has been focused over the past several decades, you know, ever since the dust bowl and all the efforts that have come up since then to really look at controlling and reducing the erosion, our landscapes. With work done by Iowa State University, we can show that through agriculture's efforts we've already reduced our losses by 22% since going back to the eighties and nineties to where we're at today. Under the Iowa Nutrient Strategy, looking at the goals, the share for agriculture of that 45%, it's around 29% we're trying to achieve. We're largely a long portion of the way towards agriculture's goals for phosphorus under the strategy. And that type of, those types of practices where the things that were adopted over time systemically across the state as we had equipment that could handle heavy residue systems and the types of crop protection products that allowed us to go to reduce tillage, and even no-till in many instances. Those are the types of changes that were adopted farm by farm across the state because they make good economic sense. They preserve the soil where we want to keep it in the field and also have the nice benefit of reducing those phosphorus losses to our surface waters.

Laurie Johns: Now some of these targets were reached in large part by work that was done well before the Nutrient Reduction Strategy went in place.

Shawn Richmond: That's correct. You know, and the nutrient strategy was really an effort to redefine our goals going forward. You know, from the point in 2013 when that was first released. But it recognizes the goals started a long time ago. The starting point for that that we're really trying to measure our progress against goes back to 1980 and 96. Looking back to the past and getting below those nutrient loss levels we had back then is what we're striving towards today. And so it's nice that under the strategy we have new directions and efforts going forward. But it's also good that we can take accountability and provide that accountability for all the work that's happened in the past 30 plus years as well.

Laurie Johns: That's right. And cause I remember the days when I was a kid, you know, driving around seeing all those black snow drifts. A lot of those have largely been changed now.

Shawn Richmond: Yeah. And that's, you know, that's certainly one of the metrics I hear a lot of farmers talk about when they're driving across the county roads and seeing those, you know, much less of that black snowdrift type situation where we see that soil loss even over the winter. That's certainly something very visible that we can see right away that shows that we have made a lot of progress. We've made a lot of change and improvement.

Laurie Johns: Now we know that farmers are accepting the challenge of meeting these targets of protecting water quality. I don't know if they get enough credit for the phosphorous reductions because everybody's focused on nitrates in the water. Nitrogen. How are we holding that in the field? Do we have some numbers on that?

Shawn Richmond: Yeah. So on the nitrogen side, we'll have numbers very soon. As far as what percent reductions, we've been able to achieve, given the current level of practice adoption, our approach is really to use the science that we have in place and what we can measure with adoption levels. The nice part about that is the science tells us kind of a weather, evened out average of what the average performance is. We all know here in Iowa the weather varies greatly day to day and hour to hour sometimes. And it's important that we have metrics that kind of take that out of the equation and tell us on average, what would we expect to achieve from a given practice? The science does that, our accountability part of that will be telling us how much of any practice we have and what the percent reduction is based off of that. You know, in the state today with what we've looked at and tracked with our survey work, it shows very positive results with where farmers are as a whole in the state on their use of nitrogen management practices. The vast majority of farmers for example, when they do apply fallen hydrous or using an inhibitor with that to reduce nutrient losses, it's over 75% of fallen hydrous is using an inhibitor product to help stem and reduce those nutrient losses. All sorts of practices like that on the infield side. It's a little more difficult on the side of nitrogen when we looked as compared to phosphorus. Just because of the way those nutrients move in and over and through our landscapes. Phosphorus moves primarily as surface runoff. Nitrate is very mobile, moves down through the soil profile with water. So as we have wet years, we certainly expect to see higher losses as that water moves through. But you know, we have practices to help address both is the important part.

Laurie Johns: And you know, the ways that these are being captured and documented, it's very important because we got to know where we start so we can see where we're going and what we need to focus on. There was some technology, lasers, airplanes flying over, the LIDAR stuff. Had some interesting numbers with that.

Shawn Richmond: Yeah. So Iowa is the only state that has a very thorough accounting of all the conservation structure of practices that have been installed in every single watershed in the entire state. An unprecedented undertaking with unprecedented information that's been able to provide us. It allows us to tell how many terraces, waterways, great stabilization structures and other practices like that are in place. Also to look back to the past and say how many of those have been added over time to give us that accountability piece towards how have we made progress. You know, just some of the anecdotal information from their total practice counts. We have more terraces, miles of terrace in Iowa, then we do have miles of stream. That's pretty impressive. We have about 77,000 miles of streams and over 88,000 miles of terraces. That doesn't happen overnight. That takes decades of hard work. But it does show us that over time we can make that progress.

Laurie Johns: That's right. And you know, when the images and the things that were captured by the LIDAR photography that was also before the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. They've done it again and we're getting those numbers totaled too.

Shawn Richmond: Yeah. So that stuff was around 2010, which was really when we were starting to put the nutrient strategy together really with the science assessments working up towards the release. It gives us kind of a benchmark and time look of where we were at in Iowa at that time. Like I said, we're also able to look back to the past, after we have that base map complete with all the practices and say what was there, what wasn't, what have we added over time. Also looking with recent aerial imagery to say what was the status of those practices as recent as the last few years. So these are all about telling us really what type of curve are we on here? Where are we adding practices? Where do we need to do more work? The other nice part about this work in particular is it really helps us to effectively target our cost share funds and our programs and our efforts. It tells us places where we already have heavy saturation of these practices and other areas where we could focus more work to achieve that really cost-effective use of our resources and achieving these nutrient losses.

Laurie Johns: That's right. And it's a big job and boy, we've got to be in it for the long haul. This is not going to be immediate results five years. I know we're waiting for some new numbers now, but it's not going to be okay. We're done.

Shawn Richmond: No, I mean the nutrient strategy, if you look at just the price tag of, you know, some of the estimates of practice scenarios that it will take to achieve the goals. We're talking billions of dollars and that's obviously not going to happen overnight. You know, these are types of things that as we look to the past and the progress we've made with phosphorus, for example, and reducing erosion. That happened over several decades. But we did achieve a large portion of those goals. As we look ahead to meet the nutrient strategy goals, it's going to be that same type of process. But I do think that we have demonstrated very well, that under the flexible voluntary type approaches of practice adoption that fits each farm right, we have made great progress and we'll continue to make that with using that approach going forward. Especially for nitrogen. As we pivot probably more fully towards focusing on that nowadays, certainly that is a bigger issue topic than it has been in the past. It certainly has a lot more attention focus to it. Aside from the infield management practices that are good for farmers both economically and environmentally. We're certainly looking to what they call edge of field structural practices, things like wetlands and bioreactors and certainly looking to ramp those up as well.

Laurie Johns: And we know that, you know, we care about what farmers are doing because we're farmers. You know, and we have an impact on the land, but when it comes to reaching those targets, phosphorus and especially nitrogen targets, it's not just farmers having an impact on the land, it's urban growth as well.

Shawn Richmond: Right. You know, so on the point source side, you know, we always have to remind everybody that this is a combined strategy between agriculture, you know, nonpoint sources and the urban industry point sources in reducing some of their losses as well. Certainly we realized a little large portion of the nutrient losses come from the large agricultural landscapes we have. That's to be expected at the scale of agriculture. But we're also looking on the city and industry side too, to see what improvements they can make in reducing their losses. And I think that's a really fair and balanced approach as we worked on this together.

Laurie Johns: Well, that's where you can see the value of collaboration.

Shawn Richmond: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, it's been a really positive process and we have so many new and existing collaborative efforts going on across the state, you know, unprecedented levels of new funding. Thanks for the Iowa legislature and the governor really to help provide the fuel for those efforts going forward. We're in a great place. But that said it is still going to take a long time. We know that. But it's a great starting point with unprecedented new resources now to really help accelerate some of that.

Laurie Johns: Wow. You know, as long ago Philosopher Francis Bacon said knowledge is power and I have to say farmers, we need this kind of message. You need this kind of power. To share knowledge. To engage people who don't farm but have questions about water quality and what you’re doing to embrace the challenge of improving it. I hope you picked up a factor two to share with your friends and neighbors for Earth Day. Now if you're like me, you're just fascinated by innovation and science. So hearing about things like laser technology is pretty cool, especially if it can be used to quantify our conservation progress. Luckily for you, there's more to that story. I caught up with Adam Schneiders of Iowa Department of Natural Resources who was presenting about LIDAR technology, that's the lasers, at the Iowa Water Conference that was at Iowa State in mid-March. Now I know what you're thinking, a science guy talking about lasers? But let me tell you, he's got a great sense of humor and he keeps it pretty light, I promise. And you won't want to miss what he has to say. Check it out. So I'm here now with Adam Schneiders with the DNR. So now you work with trying to measure water quality, different practices and you're working with this new technology called LIDAR. What is that?

Adam Schneiders: It's light detection and ranging is what it means. And it's simply airplanes flying lasers over the landscape and getting very high resolution images of the landscape, the slope, the relief across the state. And it's used for a variety of different purposes for engineers that better do desktop engineering to build any road or a bridge. And we can use it here for helping track the investment in conservation across the state of Iowa.

Laurie Johns: Now, what kind of practices are you mapping?

Adam Schneiders: It's things that you can see from the imagery. So things that can have a permanent kind of footprint on the landscape, so to speak. So, ponds, water and sediment control basins, terraces, grass waterways are things that we can see using this technology.

Laurie Johns: So, you can't see no-till or something like that?

Adam Schneiders: No. While there's efforts with remote sensing technology to try to figure out the, you know, tillage practices or the amount of cover crops or things that are covered in green in the spring, that type of thing. This project specifically what we can see from the lighter imagery, but there's efforts across, not only in Iowa but across the Midwest where people are looking at how to use this technology to distract it, those types of things as well.

Laurie Johns: And it's pretty pure information, isn't it? I mean, it is what it is. The laser is say it's this and it's inarguable. It's pretty straight lace.

Adam Schneiders: Right. And what's unique about it, too, we were fortunate in the state of Iowa to be a leader back almost a decade ago now, and it seems like a long time, but now a lot of states are doing LIDAR with much higher resolutions. And so, at the time when we did ours, we were one of the first states in the country to get this LIDAR imagery. And so having that ability to really see on a granular level what's going on in the landscape has been valuable for a lot of different groups. The public, consultants, the private sector, it's been a great asset for the state of Iowa.

Laurie Johns: Helps you target these watersheds. how many are you targeting, are you measuring, are you focusing on?

Adam Schneiders: So yeah, the state of Iowa has lots of different watersheds depending on the size of the watershed you're looking at. The common watershed that we're looking at is around 40 to 60,000 acres, commonly called a Huc 12 and USDS parlance. But there's about 1,712 of those 40 to 60,000 acre watersheds across the state of Iowa. So that's what we're focusing on, this mapping project using the LIDAR it's a full statewide, but we can break it down into these smaller watersheds.

Laurie Johns: So, what are you finding so far? I mean I know it's not done, but there's some good news out there. There a lot going on.

Adam Schneiders: Yeah. What's unique about it is, we knew a lot of things were happening on the landscape, but when you can actually put an accurate counts that have been quality controlled by the state of Iowa to this, it's great. So these are preliminary numbers and we're still will have to revamp these a little bit, but we don't expect them to change significantly. But the amount of pond dams for example, is about 114,000 pond dams, which is a lot of damn ponds. We like to joke. Terraces is about 88,000 miles of terraces, which is enough to go around the earth three and a half times, which is an incredible amount of conservation investment by land owners across the state to put that type of practice out there. Water and sediment control basins, which are kind of those little check structures, like mini terraces almost, was about 12,000 miles of those. And so that shows a lot of progress, and this is 2007 to 2010 LIDAR imagery, this is all before the Nutrient Reduction Strategy even was being developed. And so hopefully with, as that ramps up, we can see these numbers get even bigger moving forward. And a lot of the first question we usually get with these practices, well how much money is invested? Like what does that represent as far as investment? And right now from our initial estimates using some cost share information from NRCS, we're estimating about $6.2 billion in conservation investment for just those practices I mentioned, 114,000 ponds and things like that that all benefit water quality from soil erosion to also our main goal in the state these days, nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus. So huge investment already today.

Laurie Johns: Billion with a b. So, and I know that again, since this is before the Nutrient Reduction Strategy took place, is this something that is continuously monitored? I know there's, like you said, there's a cost involved in even trying to capture this with the lasers and everything, how do you track that progress then moving forward? Is there another go around?

Adam Schneiders: Right, and that's what we're still evaluating to see. Right now we are looking at that timeframe of the LIDAR imagery, which is around 2010, and we're looking at new photography 2016 to 2018 to see if we can see a difference from that time and that we have protocols that Iowa State has generated that actually being shared across the Midwest for other states that they want to try to replicate some of the work we did to try to see what's that change of progress for these specific practices. Now mind you, this is just a small chunk of the practices that are identified in the nutrient strategy. These are the things that we can obviously see from imagery, but things that are in field, nitrogen management, cover crops things that we're not even tracking.

Laurie Johns: Bioreactors.

Adam Schneiders: Bioreactors, we're not even looking at that at this point. This is just for those specific practices. And if we can do some of this imagery moving forward, we can track, you know, with a high degree of accuracy what we feel that that changes. But of course how we do that and the protocols, we're still trying to figure that out, to do it in a credible way that says this is the amount of difference statistically given 5% or 10% or whatever it might be. So we're still evaluating what that is and how much it might cost to do that. So, we're excited though moving forward that this will be something folks are interested.

Laurie Johns: Well, no kidding and information is power and it's a start. And that's a launching point for so many folks out there listening to this right now. I think so. And I think a lot of folks don't realize how much has happened already. You know, I feel like I'm relatively young to some degree, but there's been decades of work up to this point where we've got these maps and that's a really encouraging thought that has been so much, $6.2 billion of conservation investment. And if we're trying to meet these ambitious goals of the strategy, it gives you an idea like, man, if we could do that in 30 years or 40 years or whatever it might be, think about the things we can do now with this concerted effort under the strategy and all the partnerships within government with land owners, with our agricultural environmental partners working together. The future is bright as I see it as far as trying to meet those goals at a much faster pace then maybe we did in the past.

Laurie Johns: Exactly. And you know, time is an issue and people want it done yesterday. We were a long time coming here and there's a long time yet to go.

Adam Schneiders: Right. And I mean the strategy is very clear. That we're looking, you know, 20, 30 years out and that's all of our annual reporting that we do. Everything that's focused is trying to make sure we have the ability to track progress over time. Looking at multiple metrics when you're looking at a complicated problem, especially when there's a long time horizon. And this type of approach is not just an Iowa thing. It's being utilized by other states within the Mississippi River watershed. And so we're all working with them through the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force and learning from each other and what things we can track. Minnesota's interested in this mapping project. Minnesota has some interesting things that we might be able to apply to Iowa. Working with our partners, that could be useful. So we're excited with these new partnerships and learning from each other how we can do some things that kind of accurately say what's happening out there. And if we need to make adjustments, we can do so in a cooperative way with everybody and keep working together.

Laurie Johns: Now considering your 11-year-old daughter said that unless you're talking about Harry Potter, nobody in a room full of people is going to be that fascinated. You can prove her wrong.

Adam Schneiders: Right. I'm very excited about that. I'll try to tell her that, but I can promise you that she will glaze over when I try to tell her that people were interested in this mapping project. But I'll give it a shot.

Laurie Johns: We're lucky to have lots of smart folks like Adam and Shawn monitoring and sharing the conservation progress that's being made by farmers, like you, all around the state. Speaking of that, have you submitted your nomination for the 2019 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year award yet? June 1st is the deadline for nominations, but don't wait until then. The nomination process is simple and the winner receives a John Deere Utility tractor for up to 12 months or 200 hours of use. We know there's lots of great water quality work in collaboration going on and we need to encourage that among farmers and folks need to hear about it too. So be sure to submit your nomination. You can learn how to do that at That's all for this Earth Day episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. Be sure to join us for our next episode on May 6th. Until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and inspiration, and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at



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Since 1934,  The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can find episodes of the podcast at or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher or TuneInRadio.

We release new podcast episodes every other Monday. Episode 12 will be released on May 6, 2019.

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