In the two-and-a-half years it’s been in place, Iowa farmers have already made significant progress in starting to implement practices ­— such as cover crops, wetlands and bioreactors — outlined in the state’s groundbreaking nutrient reduction strategy, a lead author of the strategy said last week.

"I’m really pleased with the amount of ownership that agriculture has taken with this issue," John Lawrence, an Iowa State University (ISU) economist and associate dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said during his presentation to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) Policy Information Conference.

Still, Lawrence told Farm Bureau members, attaining the strategy’s goals is going to require a number of years, a massive ramp-up in adoption by farmers and large investments which will likely amount to billions of dollars.

"The scope and scale of this thing is huge," said Lawrence, who led ISU’s work to build the science and technical foundation for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. "I think we are talking about generations to get all of this into place. And there is a wide range of cost estimates depending on which practices you use, but the costs are going to be high."

Launched in mid-2013, the long-term strategy was developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with technical support from ISU. The portion of the strategy targeted to farms, called non-point sources, is a science and technology-based plan that provides farmers with a series of options they can voluntarily adopt on their own land to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from their fields.

A separate section of the nutrient reduction strategy, which is being implemented in parallel with the agricultural program, is directed to reduce nutrient loss from point sources such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities.

The overall goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to improve surface water quality in Iowa and help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in Iowa’s waters and ultimately reduce deliveries of those nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent. The goal of the non-point, or agricultural portion, of the plan is to reduce nitrogen loss into Iowa’s waters by 41 percent and phosphorus by 29 percent.

Developing a permanent and sustainable financing source to help pay for the water quality improvements outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy has become a big issue in Iowa, Lawrence acknowledged.

"I really think the public is starting to understand the challenge we face and see that this won’t be easy or inexpensive," Lawrence said. "I think that is progress."

Some of the most high profile funding proposals have come from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whose plan would extend tax programs which help fund school infrastructure investments. A portion of new revenues generated from the sales tax would then be dedicated to be used for conservation and water quality projects.

Another plan, developed by a task force organized by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, would establish a revolving loan fund that could leverage public funding with private sector dollars to provide farmers with low interest loans to install conservation practices.

The developers of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy estimated costs and benefits as they designed the strategy, Lawrence said. They looked at a variety of practices to reduce nutrient loss from fields and estimated how much each would cost to install, how much the practice might improve or reduce crop yields, and the benefits it could provide.

Removing nutrients

"We wanted to find the cheapest and most effective way to remove a pound of nitrogen or phosphorus from the water," Lawrence said. "And we know it’s likely going to take a combination of several technologies working together to reach the goals of the strategy."

Initial investments to address non-point sources of nutrients in Iowa are estimated to cost between $1.2 billion and $4 billion. The annual operational costs may be as much as $77 million to $1.2 billion for targeted reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus.

The technologies to reduce nutrient loss basically fall into two main categories: in-field practices, primarily cover crops, and edge-of-field practices, such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetland. Cover crops have a higher annual cost because farmers have to buy seed and have it planted each fall, Lawrence noted. The edge-of-field practices are costly to install, he said, but have relatively low annual costs once they are installed.

Benefits for the categories of practices also vary, the ISU economist noted. Cover crops will likely help farmers by reducing soil erosion and improving soil quality, while the benefits of edge-of-field practices tend to go to water users downstream, he said.

"The difference in benefits may factor into who pays for various practices to reduce nutrient loss," Lawrence said.

IFBF President Craig Hill, in his statement at the Policy Information Conference, urged Iowa Farm Bureau members to become involved in the discussions about funding the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

"The plan has been worked through and tested and now it’s time to execute it," Hill said. "We are getting a strong commitment from farmers, and now we need committed funding."