Edge-of-field conservation practices are among the most effective tools for keeping nutrients out of Iowa’s waterways, but are also among the most challenging in terms of getting practices on the ground, says Shane Wulf, edge-of-field project coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Practices like bioreactors, saturated buffers, wetlands and drainage water management are often time-consuming to plan, ex­­pensive to install and generally don’t provide a direct financial return on investment to farmers, he points out.

“Edge-of-field practices re­­quire a lot of planning to make sure we’re putting them in the right place so they’re not going to negatively impact an existing practice,” explains Wulf, who joined IDALS in a newly created po­s­­ition last fall. “Another one of the big challenges in this is weather. Any time we can utilize summer construction, we see that as a good opportunity.”

Wulf was formerly the watershed coordinator for the Miller Creek Watershed Project, one of eight water quality demonstration projects across the state.

In his new role, Wulf works with local watershed coordinators acr­oss Iowa to increase the adoption rate of edge-of-field practices. Senate File 512, the water quality funding bill passed by the Iowa Legislature in 2018, included an emphasis on funding conservation infrastructure projects.

“I’ll be helping identify sites for these practices for when the funding really starts to ramp up in 2021,” he says. “We’re envisioning a lot of those dollars would be going to bioreactors, saturated buffers and other edge-of-field practices.”

Each practice has a role de­­pending on the landscape of a particular farm, Wulf says. A bioreactor can treat drainage water from 40 to 100 acres, and a saturated buffer can treat water from up to 200 acres. Strategically placed wetlands require more area, but can effectively filter water with a drainage pool of just 0.5 to 2 percent of the drained area. That means a 10-acre wetland could treat water from as much as 2,000 acres, Wulf notes.

Through a combination of state, federal and private partnerships, it’s possible to support 100 percent of the cost for some projects, Wulf says.

IDALS received a $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency last year to help support water quality efforts in Iowa. The department is also actively seeking other funding sources to implement the state’s water quality initiative, Wulf says. Much of IDALS’ conservation funding is directed in targeted watersheds, but the department will consider any conservation project that is submitted for consideration, says Wulf.

“It’s exciting times for edge of field practices,” he says. “We’re just at the beginning of this. There are plenty of opportunities out there.”