Water quality researchers and extension specialists at Iowa State University (ISU) have joined with scientists at 11 other land-grant universities in the Mississippi River watershed and the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Hypoxia Task Force in a formal partnership to strengthen efforts to reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The task force consists of five federal agencies, 12 states and the tribes within the Mississippi River basin. The hypoxic zone, colloquially referred to as a "dead zone," is an area where nutrient-enriched waters coming from rivers and streams in the watershed cause excess growth of algae that deplete oxygen levels as they decompose.
For Iowa State, working collaboratively with state and federal agencies to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields while keeping Iowa farms productive is not new. The new regional partnership is modeled after Iowa State’s successes and working relationships with task force members and state agencies.
"What was unique about Iowa State was that while we had been doing water quality research and Extension programming, we were the first university that said let’s take all that we’ve learned and apply it to fix this problem," said John Lawrence, director of ISU Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach. "We wanted to know how to achieve a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus getting to the Gulf from Iowa fields — what needs to be done, how many acres will it take, how long will it take and what will it cost."
This Iowa State science assessment was included in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that was released in November 2012 and finalized in May 2013. Iowa State Extension specialists have since worked with farmers to extend the knowledge and implement the practices.
"Every crop meeting we do, for example, we talk about the strategy," Lawrence said. "When talking to farmers, they want to see the science. We have that. We started with that. Now we can also say every other state has to do this, too. We’re just ahead of the pack."
The new agreement has three key elements: collaboration between each university and the state agency in charge of developing a strategy in their state, collaboration among the land-grant universities, and farmer education and engagement through Extension and Outreach programs in each of the states to find solutions and implement changes on the land.
Matthew Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and Catherine Kling, professor of economics, represent Iowa State on the regional committee of land-grant university scientists.
"We can learn from our counterparts in other states regarding the research and how others are working with farmers to educate and implement the practices that reduce nutrient export to downstream waters," Helmers said.