IOWA LEGISLATURE

Weather, markets challenge nutrient reduction efforts, researcher tells Iowa lawmakers

Matt Helmers, director of the Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University, updated Iowa legislators on the project
Matt Helmers, director of the Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University, updated Iowa legislators on the projects the center has been involved in since lawmakers created it in 2013 to do science-based research of nutrient management and make recommendations for implementing the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.( James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
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DES MOINES — The director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center sees some progress in the state’s efforts to improve water quality but said weather and commodity markets present a challenge.

On the plus side, “we’ve seen some increases in acres of cover crops and some of these other edge-of-field practices,” Matt Helmers, the center’s director, told the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

“With the rainfall and some of the market forces, you know, it’s a challenge,” Helmers said.

Back-to-back wet years with heavy rains have increased nutrient runoff. Commodity market forces have led to slight increases in the number of acres converted from perennial plantings and small grains to row crops.

“So that doesn’t that doesn’t help us,” Helmers said.

The Nutrient Research Center was established by the Legislature in 2013 to pursue science-based approaches to nutrient management, make recommendations on practices and implement the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2014, it has funded 92 research projects in land management, nutrient management, edge-of-field practices and multi-objective research that includes IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa. The average funding for projects is $110,000 for a total of $10.7 million.

Although Helmers sees progress in water quality improvement, Rep. Bruce Bearinger, D-Oelwein, said the center is “not the entity that moves the needle.”

“It’s the research arm, and its research has the potential to reduce nutrients in our water,” he said.

The policies to achieve that, he said, must be set by the Legislature and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Helmers agreed that “ours is fairly specifically focused on doing research about new practices or the performance of practices.” Others are looking at the implementation.

He didn’t make a funding request, but said later, “We could definitely utilize more dollars, but we’re very thankful for those that we have.”

Helmers is most excited research the center is doing on wetlands “because I think they provide a lot of benefits beyond the nitrate reduction.”

“You know, whether it be waterfowl habitat, wildlife habitat, those types of things, you know, aesthetic value, maybe monarch habitat in the buffer around there,” he said.

He also sees potential in the work being done on cover crops and what researchers call “living mulch.” It’s a turf grass that goes dormant during the summer under row crops and reduces nitrate loss without negatively affecting crop yields.

Helmers told legislators that it’s important to find practices that have an economic upside and then to communicate those to farmers.

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Bearinger, who worked in the Iowa State University Extension Service, agreed that in addition to the science-based work the center does, the Legislature has to support sociological efforts to win buy-in from farmer and landowners.

It’s also important, Bearinger said, that whatever practices are pushed out that they have “measurable and attainable goals.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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