As Iowa’s innovative water quality initiative nears its fourth anniversary this spring, state agricultural and environmental officials are outlining ways that the practices in the strategy can be scaled up to reach more farmers and cover more acres across the state.

The scale-up plan for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy — the official name of the water quality initiative launched in 2013 by the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with technical assistance from Iowa State University — will prioritize additional state funding to spur the instillation of more edge-of-field water quality practices. Those practices, such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands, have been shown to improve water quality, but offer little economic incentive to farmers, the officials said.

The Spokesman recently in­­terviewed Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey about the progress that farmers and others in Iowa have made as they take on the challenge of improving water quality, and about the outlook for future progress as the strategy scales up.

Here are some excerpts of that interview.

Q: As we head toward the fourth year of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in May, what is your assessment of the progress to date?

I’m very encouraged. We are in a very different place, and a much better place, than where we were three or four years ago when we started out. It wasn’t that long ago we had people questioning if this whole thing made sense at all. Now water quality and conservation practices are part of normal routines for Iowa farmers as they raise crops and livestock.

When we started, we did not know if farmers would engage in practices outlined in the strategy or not. Now we see, very clearly, that they will. There really is momentum that we didn’t see a few years ago.

Q: How is that momentum showing up?

You can see it in a lot of different ways. You see more people at soil health workshops; you see more people at conservation field days; and you see more practices, like cover crops, when you travel around the state. And some places, like Washington County, are really impressive with the amount of land in cover crops. Co-ops, seed suppliers and other ag businesses are also seeing the business opportunity by helping to serve farmers’ conservation needs.

Q: Why do you think so many Iowa farmers have embraced water quality and conservation practices since the water quality initiative was introduced?

Through demonstration projects, along with neighbor-to-neighbor information sharing, farmers have seen that in-field practices make sense. Along with helping water quality, cover crops and others in-field practices provide economic benefits such as reduced soil loss, improved soil health and improved weed control.

It’s hard to imagine before you do it, but now folks have the experience they did not have before, and they can clearly see the benefits.

Q: What are the next steps to build on the progress in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy?

We are going to focus more of our efforts, and more cost-share dollars, on edge-of-field practices, such as nutrient reduction wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffers. These practices are not cheap, and farmers don’t see a benefit from them like they can from in-field practices. But there is real benefit to society, in general, from these edge-of-field practices, which makes them good investments.

That is why we are saying that we need more dollars in cost-share funding. We really believe that those dollars can be invested well to improve water quality. And we think those dollars can be leveraged well with federal funds, investments from farmers and other groups interested in water quality, such as non-profit groups.

Q: Is that why you support long-term state funding for water quality and conservation cost-share programs?

Yes. Having a long-term funding source, that is predictable, would allow us to do multi-year investments in water quality projects, especially the edge-of-field projects. That would give farmers the certainty of knowing that cost-share funding would be there as they plan and implement a water quality project.

Long-term state funding would also help us enlist other partners to support water quality projects. These groups have already seen Iowa farmers embrace water quality. So if the state steps up and makes a long-term funding commitment, they would be more willing to step forward to help finance projects.