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Project takes water quality plans out of farmers’ hands

ALLEMAN, Iowa — To improve Iowa water quality, it does take a village.

For years Iowa has been struggling with how to improve the state’s water quality. Funding has been approved. Grants and programs have been implemented. Pilot projects have been put in place. And — one by one — farmers have implemented practices and built structures to deal with the problem of nutrient runoff.

But Kurt Lehman has seen how a more coordinated approach could work in making faster progress.

Lehman, who grows corn and soybeans on his Polk County farm, was one of the farmers approached in the past couple of years and asked to be part of a more targeted effort. The combined forces of Polk County, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the USDA helped Lehman to install not one or even two saturated buffer strips on his land, but a bunch.

“It’s a big deal for me,” Lehman says. “It’s showing up, and I’m not paying for it.”

Iowa’s goals, according to IDALS, are to reduce both annual nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the water by 45%. Some of that reduction is to come from point-sources, such as factories. For nitrogen the reduction in non-point sources is 41% and for phosphorus about 29% of the reduction is to come from non-point sources.

Lehman watched last month as officials held a field day on his farm to show off a saturated buffer alongside Fourmile Creek, which runs through his property. He says those officials understood that he and other farmers like him want to help improve water quality, but they often don’t know where to start or what to do. They came to him with a plan.

The idea isn’t complicated, but the coordinated effort is. Polk County officials worked with IDALS and USDA. The local officials chose a watershed, looked at the maps and came up with a comprehensive plan to install a large number of field-edge structures and practices. They then approached the farmers and offered to take care of the funding and planning. All the farmer had to do was approve of the work.

Suddenly, farmers who had been faced with the idea of walking into a soil conservation office and asking about programs and grants and deciding how much of his or her own funds to spend could instead watch as someone else took care of the paperwork and planning.

That is an important idea, according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, because most edge-of-field practices don’t do anything to improve the bottom line for individual farmers.

They do, however, benefit society. By making the process easier and more coordinated, it could increase farmer participation.

This isn’t the first attempt at watershed-wide coordinated programs, Naig adds. Officials in Cedar Rapids have worked with farmers for some time. Several other watershed efforts have led to advances in other parts of the state. But the Polk County effort is more comprehensive than some past ones.

Dubbed the Central Iowa Water Quality Infrastructure Project, this is unique. Polk County managed funding and hired contractors in partnership with landowners through temporary easements.

The county and the state shared construction costs. By doing a number of buffer strips at once in one area, the county could reduce construction costs and work with one contractor on a number of structures.

John Swanson, a water resources planner with the Polk County Department of Public Works, calls this a “fiscal agent” model and says it can help ramp up water quality efforts. He says contractors are installing 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors on the edge of farm fields. But he adds that phase two of the project calls for another 150 similar items to be built.

John Norwood, a soil and water conservation district commissioner in Polk County, spoke at the field day, saying “Iowa farmers are an ingenious, hardy and daring, optimistic lot.”

Others are hopeful that this will provide a template for future water quality efforts, but caution that there are challenges.

“I think the Polk County program is a really good example of removing some of the barriers,” says Ingrid Gronstal of the Iowa Environmental Council.

But she says many more-rural counties may not have the staff to provide the necessary support for such a program. That is where additional state funding could be helpful, she says, because it could provide the staff necessary to replicate programs such as this one.

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