Guest Columnist

Best is yet to come on clean water

A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek on a farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek on a farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

As the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) turns five years old this week, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on progress made to date and the work still required to meet water quality challenges.

Iowa’s farmers have made tremendous progress reducing soil erosion by adopting practices such as no-till or strip-till, grass waterways, terraces and buffers.

By curtailing erosion, farmers have helped substantially decrease sediment and phosphorus in our waterways. Phosphorus loading in Iowa has been declining by about 2 percent per year for the past two decades. An Iowa State University assessment finds Iowa’s farmers already have helped to reduce phosphorus losses by 22 percent since the baseline period was established in the Iowa NRS only five years ago.

Reducing nitrogen losses is a tougher challenge since nitrate is soluble and moves with the water. Efforts to reduce nitrogen loading have ramped up in the past decade. Bioreactors and saturated buffers, invented and pioneered in Iowa, are effective at reducing nitrate losses from subsurface drainage. Meanwhile, increased emphasis has been placed on an old practice — cover crops — an effective solution that keeps both nitrogen and phosphorus in farm fields.

Across Iowa, every watershed has its own set of unique circumstances. From varying soil types to various stakeholders, each watershed requires a unique approach.

Across Iowa, we are seeing great progress in when critical factors come together: a watershed plan, financial assistance, technical assistance, and engaged agribusinesses, community members, and farmer-leaders.

One leader is Louis Beck, a third-generation farmer near La Porte City. Earlier this year, he said: “I believe that the whole water quality issue is a shared issue. The Miller Creek Watershed starts in my land. I feel responsible that if I’m part of it at the beginning, I need to do what I can to reduce nitrate and to reduce soil erosion, so I am definitely a part of the solution.”

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The work of individuals such as Louis ripples through watersheds as their collective efforts flow together. Numerous stakeholders in the Miller Creek Watershed are working together so well, they gave themselves the lofty objective of becoming the first watershed in the state to meet the goals of the Iowa NRS.

Farmers in the area already have adopted cover crops on 20 percent of their row crop acres. The leaders of the watershed project set an ambitious goal to increase the adoption rate of cover crops to 50 percent.

Similar progress has been made in other watersheds that are part of a $48 million project the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship are coleading.

IDALS has funded 65 demonstration projects. Last year, $420 million was spent to address water quality challenges, and the Legislature has approved additional funding.

We also are coleading a Conservation Infrastructure Initiative with IDALS designed to get greater private sector engagement and investment. I’m confident despite the amazing progress of the past five years, the best is yet to come.

• Sean McMahon is executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, founded in 2014 by Iowa Corn, the Iowa Soybean Association, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

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