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Report shows progress on Iowa’s water quality initiative

More farmers are planting cover crops, like these in northern Iowa, as a way to reduce nutrient loss and improve soil quality.
More farmers are planting cover crops, like these in northern Iowa, as a way to reduce nutrient loss and improve soil quality. PHOTO/GARY FANDEL

Iowa farmers and communities, with the help of government agencies, ag organizations and Iowa State University (ISU), continue to make steady and measurable progress on reaching the goals of Iowa’s water quality initiative, officially called the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS).

That’s the finding of the annual NRS progress report submitted recently to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission by ISU, the Iowa De­­part­­ment of Ag­­riculture and Land Stew­­ardship and the Iowa De­­partment of Natural Re­­sources.

“The find­­ings are very encouraging,” said John Lawrence, an ISU economist and associate dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who spearheaded the university’s effort to develop the NRS. “It tells me that farmers are taking nutrient reduction seriously and are taking ownership of the strategy. We are making strides on just about every variable we are measuring. We have more funding, more field days and more acres going into practices that have shown to improve water quality.”

The progress report shows that Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality, said Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF).

“There are not going to be any quick fixes, and we know that everyone in Iowa has a role in improving water quality. But this report shows that Iowa farmers and communities are continuing to take strides to improve water quality.”

Progress in many areas

Specifically, the annual report, which covered the 12 months ending on May 31, showed:

• The implementation of select conservation practices kept more than 3.8 million pounds of nitrogen from entering surface water. In addition, nearly 218,000 pounds of phosphorus was kept out of surface water.

• State and private organizations in 2015 invested more than $122 million to implement water quality programs outlined in the initiative.

• 93 percent of Iowa farmers said in 2015 that they have some knowledge of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and 68 percent consider themselves somewhat to very knowledgeable about it, according an ISU Farm and Rural Life poll.

• 77 percent of farmers polled in 2015 said they were planning to plant cover crops, which have shown to reduce nutrient levels while improving soil health.

• Farm groups, agencies and others in 2015 held 178 field days, presentations and conferences about ways to improve water quality;  nearly 21,000 people attended those events.

• Iowa communities, which are also part of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, are stepping up to improve water quality. Of the 149 communities listed in the strategy to receive new permits or conduct feasibility studies, 66 have been issued permits, and 20 have submitted feasibility studies.

The new report shows that farmers and communities are making changes on the land, ISU’s Lawrence said. And those changes, in time, should translate into improvement in the quality of water, he said.  

Value of INREC

Lawrence also highlighted the work through the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC), a non-profit organization est­ablished by ag retailers through the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and other farm organizations.

INREC is developing systems to help ag retailers statewide to gather data on privately-funded efforts to address environmental issues in Iowa agriculture and to track ongoing progress.

“The INREC work is helping us find data that is not available through cost-share or other public programs,” Lawrence said.

INREC is also working to equip certified crop advisors and other reps for ag retailers to be the “change agents” to help farmers install conservation practices. And the group is working to foster innovation in environmental technologies and practice.



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