The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and its implementing Water Quality Initiative is celebrating five years of unprecedented progress. Progress measurement is a challenge, though, and why scientists and policy-makers that developed the strategy use a “logic model” (pictured above). There are significant challenges in measuring water quality changes at the statewide scale in the short-term. Monitoring at the statewide scale to show 45 percent reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus - a stated goal of the strategy - can take decades, according to scientists, due to weather, climate, development, lag times, and legacy effects. There is also a great deal of misinformation generated by activists who want to undermine the strategy policy and obtain a "permit to farm policy." This misrepresentation is sometimes perpetuated by misinformed media. 

The logic model that scientists are using notes the need to first quantify near-term measurable indicators of desirable change, such as: Inputs (people; funding; agency & private sector resources); Human Activity (partner organizations; agribusinesses; farmer knowledge and attitudes; point sources and management knowledge, attitudes); and Land (land use changes; practice adoption; point source implementation); Measuring these indicators on our "water quality dashboard" over time get us to measurable, longer-term Water indicators (calculated load reductions, measured loads in priority watersheds, measured loads at existing monitoring stations).  

Progress Highlights To-Date 

Examples of the shorter-term progress measures documented in the first five years include:

  • The recently approved Senate File 512 by the Governor and Legislature of an unprecedented $282 million in dedicated, sustainable funding over the next 12 years for point source (urban) and non-point source (rural) nutrient reduction practices and projects. This is very likely to leverage new federal, local and private funding, too.
  • More than 250 partner organizations are participating in the 65 water quality demonstration projects underway across the state. These partners will provide $37.7 million to go with the $23.4 million in state funding going to these projects.
  • 760,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Iowa in 2017, up 22 percent from the year before, and a 76-fold increase since 10,000 acres were planted in 2009.
  • During the past 5 years, as many as 8,000 farmers, including nearly 4,600 first-time users, signed up to use a water quality focused practice. These farmers invested more than $17 million to try cover crops, no-till, strip-till or a nitrification inhibitor on their land.
  • The Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University, created by the Legislature in 2013, has provided more than $7 million to fund 60 competitive grants focused on evaluating the performance of current conservation practices and developing new approaches to reducing nutrient loss from agricultural landscapes. Center-supported research focuses on management practices, land-use practices, edge-of-field practices and other water quality areas.
  • Of the 154 municipal wastewater plants and industrial facilities required to assess their nutrient removal capacity, 125 have been issued new permits. Of those, 83 have also submitted feasibility studies on potential nutrient removal technology improvements.
  • Twelve cities and seven industries have met the INRS point source reductions targets for nitrogen removal (66 percent removal). Five cities and three industries have met the INRS point source reduction targets for phosphorus removal (75 percent removal).
  • 43 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants have committed to construct upgrades to remove phosphorus and nitrogen. 

More complete annual reports can be found here. These kinds of sustained actions and investments will lead to long-term water quality changes, scientists say. In addition, more progress is certain from these ongoing strategy measurement projects: 

Assessment of the Estimated Non-Point Source Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loading from Iowa Ag Sources 

To develop the strategy in 2010-12, Iowa State University nitrate-N and phosphorus loads using information from the 2006-2010 time period. This period was used due to the availability of data. However, the 2008 Gulf of Mexico Action Plan states that reductions “…measured against the average load over the 1980-1996 time period may be necessary.” A recent ISU project provides estimates of nitrate-N and phosphorus loads from Iowa over this longer baseline period, to be consistent with the federal government and other states. 

The recent study found that the average phosphorus load in Iowa for the 1980-96 time baseline period was 21,436 tons, a compared to 16,800 tons initially reported in the strategy when it was first released in 2012. The 22 percent smaller P loads by the time the INRS started - compared to the baseline measurement period - were primarily due to fewer acres under intensive tillage and a significant increase in no-till acreage during the period. This is also due to our long-term experience and success with soil erosion control programs in Iowa. This successful approach is now being applied to our new challenge: nitrogen reductions.

The average nitrate-N load for the 1980-96 period was recently estimated by ISU to be 292,022 tons, compared to 307,449 tons reported at the start of the strategy, an estimated 5% increase from the baseline period to when the strategy was written. Increased N loads over this period were primarily due to the steady-slightly increasing corn/soybean acres and continuous corn acreage, and N application rate. But again, through our farmer-to-farmer learning model that been used successfully over time to reduce phosphorus loading, scientists are confident of similar long-term progress on the nitrogen side of the equation. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship's Water Quality Initiative is all about applying the phosphorus lessons to the nitrogen challenge.  

Iowa DNR BMP Mapping Project

While some state and federal agencies sometimes keep track of the practices that they promote, Iowa lacks a comprehensive database of practices in each watershed. The Iowa Best Management Practices (BMP) Mapping Project provides this database for the entire state, and provides an accurate inventory of structural practices which are essential to help establish baseline conditions, and documenting implementation from the INRS. It will provide a meaningful record of the in-field and historical edge-of-field conservation practices for reducing erosion and nutrient loss. Practices documented include: Contour buffer strips; grassed waterways; terraces, ponds, strip-cropping, and water and sediment control basins. Arial and LiDAR images such as hill shade and slope are used for identifying structures. The new imagery provides a three-dimensional view of the ground to supplement the natural color and infrared aerial photography (2-D). Nutrient reductions and investments from the practices can be calculated. 

The Iowa Nutrient Research & Education Council (INREC) 

The Iowa Nutrient Research & Education Council (INREC) is led by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. Formed in 2014, INREC has three core missions: Measuring and demonstrating environmental progress; fostering innovation and development of new technologies; and enhancing crop advisor and ag retailer roles as “change agents” in helping farmers achieve environmental goals. INREC is collaborating with agronomy retailers, CCAs and ISU scientists to pioneer a first-of-its-kind progress measurement system using retailer and CCA farm records to track environmental progress being made by Iowa farmers, while maintaining confidentiality and security of individual farmers’ information. INREC received $250,000 per year for three years for this. The public-private partnership on the project is an important step in measuring nutrient load reductions stemming from Iowa’s implementation of practices and progress on water-quality goals outlined in Iowa. Initial survey results should include data on farmer nutrient sources, timing and rate, and cropping, tillage and conservation practices.

The state’s nutrient reduction strategy is off to a great start in its first five years. Clearly there's significant ongoing progress measurement. More progress will be documented each year that will lead to long-term water quality improvement.