Voluntary conservation plans are working better, smarter

As summer draws to a close, we are all reminded about life’s cycles. The state fair is over, kids are back at school and college and football is in the air. Another cycle is the weather. Summer started wet, turned generally cool and then was moderately dry.

These inter-seasonal cycles ebb and flow and periodic concerns develop, but the long-term conservation progress by Iowa farmers is certain.

Iowa’s erosion rate on cropland is down 28 percent from 1982, as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nitrate concentrations analyzed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at 60 river monitoring sites from 1998-2012 show that 80 percent to 90 percent of valid sites don’t show a definite nitrate trend.

Nitrate levels in the Iowa River decreased by 10 percent from 2000-2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the first observed declines in the Mississippi River Basin since 1980.

Raccoon River nitrates have trended lower the past 15 years despite an increase in corn acres, based on more than 10,000 water samples collected by the Iowa Soybean Association.

There are other indicators of conservation success, adding to evidence that counters popular notions that increased corn and livestock production in Iowa is leading to more nitrates in the state’s waters. New technology, a strong commitment to conservation programs in the farm bill since 1990, and the weather all play a part.

The state’s commitment to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy will add to this progress.

The state’s strategy is off to a great start in just 15 months.

Farmers in 13 targeted, smaller watersheds have combined more than $10 million in their own funding with $5.8 million in state money and are setting goals, planning and implementing conservation activities, supported by the science that is appropriate for their local conditions.

And in less than a week — for the second year in a row — farmers statewide also applied for $1.4 million in cost share funds (that they leverage with their money) to install new nutrient reduction practices.

More will happen as additional funding is identified by the Legislature. These public-private commitments to natural resource infrastructure have been essential since the Dust Bowl.

There are 130 municipal and industrial waste treatment plants that treat more than 1 million gallons of wastewater a day and handle 80 percent of all municipal wastewater for 60 percent of Iowans.

As many as 20 plants are conducting feasibility studies and will be negotiating construction schedules and amending permits to install new biological nutrient removal technology.

Challenges remain, but farmers and cities are working together. In the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, a developing collaboration led by Cedar Rapids and Steve Hershner, utilities director, at least 13 partners are planning to advance nutrient and flood reduction practices in the 2,417 square mile watershed, part of the larger Cedar River watershed.

These are just a few of the early accomplishments. More will be documented soon in the strategy’s first annual report. Our voluntary conservation programs are certainly working better, smarter. Even better days are ahead.

l Rick Robinson is the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s environmental policy adviser. Comments: rrobinson@ifbf.org.

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