More than $47 million in public and private investments will help farmers in five key Iowa watersheds quickly scale up conservation practices that improve water quality beginning this year.

The funds will be used to help farmers install new soil and water conservation practices in the North Raccoon, South Skunk, Lake Red Rock, Middle Cedar and Upper Cedar watersheds.

"This money will go right to farmers for things like cover crops, conservation tillage, edge-of-field practices like bioreactors (and) saturated buffers that are really important for reducing nitrate loss," said Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, which is overseeing the project along with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. "We’re also going to have some resources for conservation planning, and our private sector partners are doing some really innovative things around precision ag and harnessing the latest innovations and technology."

The project, led by the Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership, is seen as a model for public and private entities working together to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, said McMahon.

"We really do think that this is going to be transformational in terms of moving ahead progress to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy," he said. "This grant and this project is really putting a lot of new impetus and momentum behind that."

The Iowa-led project received a $9.5 million grant earlier this year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the largest award in the country this year, and is being matched by $4.75 million in state funding and $33 million in private investments.

Building momentum

The project brings together 19 private sector partners along with 26 non-governmental organizations, cities and government agencies working toward a common goal of cleaner water and healthier soil while maintaining farm productivity and profitability.

"We are building on momentum at the local level to address nutrient losses at the watershed scale," said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. "These funds will allow us to continue to engage the local agriculture community to deliver and demonstrate the technologies needed to improve water quality while protecting and maintaining Iowa’s tremendous agricultural productivity."

A key part of the initiative will involve local ag retailers and seed companies working with farmers to demonstrate practices proven to have a significant impact on reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses.

Agronomists will also help farmers integrate precision farming technologies that can improve conservation outcomes, said Todd Peterson, stewardship lead for WinField.

"We believe that in addition to talking about your crop plans and fertility plans, we really ought to be talking about your conservation plans," he said. "We have a big job ahead of us, but we have an opportunity to make a big difference."

Project leaders believe working at the watershed level will have the dual benefit of implementing conservation practices at a broad scale while at the same time targeting specific practices where they can maximize water quality benefits. "Our water quality challenges are complex," McMahon said. "There is no one silver bullet, but taken together, we do have silver buckshot."