Everyone has a role to play in improving Iowa’s water quality, and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) is leading the way. 

Don’t believe the activist rhetoric that it will take thousands of years or a sales tax to be successful. This unprecedented state policy is off to a great start, funded with at least $590 million in state money through 2039. It will, however, take continued effort, adoption and resources, but not more re­­gulation. 

Developed in 2013 at the re­­quest of the Environmental Protection Agency, the INRS prioritized watersheds in Iowa and established nutrient load reduction goals to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss to surface waters by 45%. 

The INRS is a state policy established by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Iowa State University (ISU), with input from other state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and farm and commodity groups, including Farm Bureau. It provides a collaborative, science-based strategy to take on water quality improvement. Its progress is evaluated and reported by independent scientists.

Continuing progress

However, it is critical that Iowa continues to make progress toward the established goal, or it risks increased pressure for a “permit to farm” scheme or other additional regulations advocated by activists. 

The INRS is implemented through its Water Quality Initiative (WQI) implementation program. The policy recognizes that scientists say progress measurement at the statewide scale is a challenge in the early years. 

Monitoring at the statewide scale to show 45% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus in surface water can take many years due to weather, climate, new development, results lag times and legacy effects of sediment and nutrients already in the water.

That’s why scientists have identified other initial and intermediate “measurable indicators of desirable change” (and reported on periodically) before large-scale watershed water quality changes can be measured at the statewide scale in the long-term. 

This was true when the strategy was adopted in 2013, and it remains accurate today.

Yet the INRS is considered the most significant state soil and water-focused policy initiative in our lifetimes because it focuses science on a time-proven information, education and demonstration of practices approach, and it provides new, sustainable financial resources focused on priority resource needs and areas.

Example measurable initial in­­dicators of desirable change so far include:

• Land use practices, edge-of-field practices and traditional erosion control structures are all trending toward greater adoption, as noted in the new “Interactive Data Dashboards” developed by IDALS and ISU.

• There were 56 saturated buffers and bioreactor projects completed last year.

• There are more than 40 wetlands valued at nearly $12 million scheduled for development and installation.

• There are more than 125 bioreactors/saturated buffers under design or in development.

• Iowa has now seen an estimated 26% to 27% reduction in phosphorus since the 1980-1996 baseline period established in the INRS, just shy of the 29% reduction goal for nonpoint sources, according to independent scientific analysis. This proven model of voluntary conservation success is now being applied to reduce nitrogen loss. 

• Iowa farmers planted nearly 2.2 million acres of cover crops in 2019 to protect Iowa’s soil and water, up 36% from 2017, 200 times more acres than a decade ago.

• More than 540 collaborative outreach events drew more than 50,000 attendees in 2019.

• The total one-year state and federal funding for all INRS-related efforts in 2019, including education, outreach, research and practice implementation, was at least $560 million, a 9% increase from the previous year.


IDALS is continuing to transition from practice demonstrations to implementation projects for the nonpoint/ag land portion in selected priority watersheds. 

To accomplish this, there’s an “edge-of-field” practice coordinator working statewide to provide training and technical assistance and to foster implementation of practices in targeted watersheds. There are now eight project coordinators working with farmers in priority watersheds. This targeted, “scaled-up” approach will ex­­pand to more watersheds in the years ahead.

Again, everyone has a role to play in the INRS and protecting water quality. But the unprecedented coordination, participation and resources of the INRS provide a nationally recognized, collaborative, science-based stra­­tegy to improve water quality.

Robinson recently retired as Iowa Farm Bureau’s conservation and natural resources policy advisor.