creek and farm land
FUNDING NEEDED: As the 2018 session of the Iowa Legislature begins, farm groups are working to secure long-term dedicated state funding to improve water quality and save soil.

Scaling up next step for water quality work

Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality in the state.

By Bill Northey

When the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released in 2012, it was a whole new approach to addressing the important issue of water quality. Rather than setting some overly ambitious goal without a plan to achieve it, we looked at the science to see what it would actually take to see a 45% reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the state and making its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

With the strategy as our guide, we set about the hard work of getting more practices on the ground that have been scientifically shown to protect water quality. 

Our approach has been to support locally led water quality projects in targeted watersheds that are focused on helping us learn best practices and demonstrate them across the state. Currently, we have 56 demonstration projects located across the state. This includes 15 targeted watershed projects, seven projects focused on expanding the use and innovative delivery of water quality practices and 34 urban water quality demonstration projects.

Seeing progress on water quality effort
We are seeing significant progress within these demonstration projects, including cover crop adoption nearing 50% of farmland in some of the small, targeted watersheds.

Critically important to the success of these demonstration projects are the more than 200 organizations participating in and supporting these projects. These partners will provide $30.6 million in support to go with the $19 million in state funding going to these projects.

In addition to demonstration projects, we have offered cost-share statewide to allow all farmers a chance to get started with practices focused on water quality. Last fall, more than 2,600 farmers signed up to try cover crops, no-till, strip till or nitrification inhibitors on more than 270,000 acres. This includes 1,000 farmers trying a new practice for the first time and 1,600 past users that are planting cover crops again and are receiving a reduced rate of cost share. These farmers committed to spending $8.7 million of their own money to match the $4.8 million in cost-share provided by the state.

Innovative approaches working
Recognizing that innovative approaches are needed, Iowa has also created a first-of-its-kind program aimed at increasing acres of cover crops. Through this program, farmers that plant cover crops may be eligible for a $5-per-acre premium reduction on their crop insurance.

All of these activities and more are highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Progress Report. The report provides updates on point source and nonpoint source efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads leaving the state.

The report follows the “logic model” framework that identifies each of the factors necessary to make water quality improvements and looks at measurable indicators of change that can be quantified. The report provides a full overview of the progress that has been made toward the goals of achieving a 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loads leaving the state. The full report can be found at

Long-term source of funding
This work has been possible thanks to the broad bipartisan support from the Iowa Legislature to support this water-quality work, including providing more than $10 million for water quality this fiscal year.

With all of this groundwork now in place, I truly believe now is the time to identify a long-term source of funding to allow us to continue to scale up our water-quality efforts.

The last two years both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate have passed proposals that would provide nearly $300 million for water-quality efforts over the next 12 years without raising taxes. The funding would scale up the investment in edge-of-field and in-field infrastructure, like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors, to improve water quality. It also directed fees Iowans already pay on their water bills toward improving wastewater and drinking-water facilities.

Thanks to the hard work of a number of legislative leaders, I am optimistic that a bill will pass early in the session to finalize a long-term water-quality funding plan for Gov. Kim Reynolds to sign. She has said she hopes a water-quality funding bill is the first bill she signs into law as governor; we should take her up on her request.

Northey, is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake and is serving his third term as Iowa secretary of agriculture. More information about water quality efforts in Iowa can be found at cleanwateriowa.orgNorthey can be contacted at [email protected].

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