Several of our staff attended the Iowa Water Conference on March 12 and 13. The event brings together hundreds of smart, hard-working people that are working to improve water quality, restore aquatic habitat, and control flooding across the state of Iowa. We always learn a lot from both the presenters and the other attendees, and come away energized. Here are our top three lessons we learned this year:
1. Farms can simultaneously improve water quality and wildlife habitat
Adam Janke, Extension Wildlife Specialist, talked about how the practices being used for nutrient reduction can also benefit many of Iowa’s species of greatest conservation need. For example, trumpeter swans like CREP wetlands. Migrating ringneck ducks and Topeka shiners use oxbow wetlands. Meadowlarks use prairie strips. We will be pursuing these kinds of synergies in three watersheds with a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, so it was great to hear specifics.
2. Retailers of agricultural products need to be part of water quality solutions
Chris Jones from University of Iowa shared some disturbing data from northwest Iowa. In the Floyd and Rock River watersheds, livestock production and manure application has doubled since 1980, but commercial fertilizer sales have remained the same. In those watersheds, nitrogen is being applied at 80-100 lbs/acre above the MRTN (Maximum Return to Nitrogen), leading to nitrate concentrations in the Floyd and Rock rivers that are twice as high as other streams in western Iowa. Clearly, some farmers aren’t thinking about their manure management plan or water quality when they purchase nitrogen fertilizer, and their retailers aren’t bringing it up. When our conversations about agriculture remain siloed (pardon the pun), water quality suffers.
However, at another session, we learned how ag retailers with the Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance are showing leadership on water quality — including water quality monitoring in the Raccoon River and developing a code of practice for nitrogen application to reduce losses from farm fields while increasing return on investment (ROI). Precision agriculture tools are also being used to identify land where inputs aren’t generating a good ROI, and use that information to make conservation decisions that benefit both the bottom line and the environment. Gregg Schmitz of Nutrien shared an example where revenues from a 140 acre farm were increased by putting 70 acres into CRP and redeploying inputs into the other half. Surveys show that agriculture retailers and crop consultants are trusted sources of information for farmers, so their involvement will be essential to solving our water quality challenges. We’re grateful for the support of Key Cooperative and Heartland Cooperative on field days and producer engagement in the Squaw Creek watershed.
3. Water quality improvements are possible, but require a commitment of both time and money
Neil Shaffer, an award-winning watershed coordinator in northeast Iowa, shared some heartening success stories. Nitrate leaving the Staff Creek and Beaver Creek watershed was reduced by 47%. Brook trout were reintroduced to a tributary of Silver Creek. In both cases, it took over 8 years of monitoring and $3-5 million of funding for conservation practices to see those changes. We’re well aware that water quality requires a long-term commitment and are in this for the long haul.