Even in the depths of a cold and snowy winter, the first green shoots of the Iowa’s ambitious water quality improvement program are starting to appear all over the state.

Some of the early signs of progress in the state’s water quality initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, are already visible this winter —or will be when the snow cover melts. That’s because thousands of farmers around the state last fall planted cover crops for the first time.

But another clear signal of progress, according to Iowa agriculture officials, farmers and conservationists, is the formation of eight demonstration projects that are part of the department’s Water Quality Initiative. They are being established in nine priority watersheds, designated by the state’s Water Resource Coordinating Council.

The demonstration projects, which were chosen last fall by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), are designed to provide farmers with a firsthand look at how soil conservation and water quality...