Iowa gets millions more to improve water quality

A $9.5 million USDA grant leverages over three times more from private sector

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An Iowa partnership will get a $9.5 million federal grant to expand water quality improvement efforts in the Cedar River and other targeted watersheds.

The grant and the additional nearly $38 million it leverages will be targeted toward improvements in key watersheds, including tributaries of the middle and upper Cedar River.

“This helps build momentum for additional progress in the effort to curtail Iowa’s nutrient pollution,” said state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program closely follows the announcement last month of a $97 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to make the state more resilient to flooding and to reduce nutrient pollution.

The Legislature is also considering proposals to fund the Iowa Natural Resources and Recreation Trust Fund, which would raise about $170 million a year, of which more than half would support clean water programs.

“Whether that happens this year or later, it’s all positive,” Northey said.

Northey said the Regional Conservation Partnership Program “came out of (U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom) Vilsack’s initiative to create more ways to develop partnerships that engage private sector groups with government agencies.”

The $9.5 million grant, the largest National Funding Pool award in the country this year, went to the Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership — a 45-member group headed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.

It will be leveraged with $4.75 million in state funding and $33 million from the private sector, including seed, chemical and fertilizer companies, as well as agriculture retailers and service providers. Farmers and landowners will make additional investments not included in the $47.25 million total.

The largest share of the federal funds will be made available over five years through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps pay for such conservation practices as cover crops, saturated buffers and denitrification bioreactors, according to Sean McMahon, executive director of Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, founded in 2014 by commodity groups to build public-private water quality-improvement partnerships.

About $2 million will be used to convert farmland to wetlands and grasslands through the USDA’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, McMahon said.

“By working with ag organizations, businesses, retailers and other partners, we are building on momentum at the local level to address nutrient losses at the watershed scale,” Northey said.

In addition to the Middle Cedar and Upper Cedar watersheds, the initiative will focus on improvements in the North Raccoon and South Skunk rivers and Lake Red Rock, a Corps of Engineers impoundment of the Des Moines River.

McMahon said the partners credit the USDA and its Natural Resources Conservation Service with recognizing the importance of targeting Farm Bill resources to priority watersheds and landscapes.

McMahon said the private sector partners, in addition to their funding commitments, bring “precision agriculture” expertise that will help identify the specific acres that lose the most nutrients while making the least profit.

“This effort is a true public-private partnership that will leverage the resources of our agribusiness partners to help their farmer customers adopt practices that will improve water quality,” he said.

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