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Iowa officials measuring nutrient reduction progress

DES MOINES, Iowa – Farmers themselves are just one component of progress that officials will look at in determining how well the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is being implemented.

Surveys out now in rural Iowa are attempting to gauge exactly what farmers know about efforts to reduce nutrients under the nutrient reduction strategy. They went out on March 20th to producers in the Iowa River Watershed in eastern Iowa and the Little Sioux and Missouri Watershed in western Iowa. Just a week later, about a third of all surveys sent out had been completed and returned, according to Associate Dean of Extension and Outreach Dr. John Lawrence with Iowa State University’s College of Ag and Life Sciences.

Some other states attempting to reduce the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (Minnesota; Ohio) have put some timelines in place as part of their efforts as part of the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. Lawrence says the expectation in Iowa is that progress will be slow-going, and vary from year to year.

”There’ll be years where farmers will be able to invest in changes and will do so rapidly,” he says, “and there’ll be other years where they will not be able to. There’ll be years with low rainfall, very little runoff, [and] very little leaching through the soil. Numbers will look very good. The next year, we may get more rainfall, bringing the numbers back up. We’re really about making continuous improvement over time rather than hitting any artificial targets.”

Measuring farmer understanding of nutrient reduction efforts is just one part of the logic model that officials will use to see how close they are to reducing nutrients. Lawence says before there are changes in water quality, authorities expect to see changes in the kinds of conservation practices employed on Iowa farms, but he also adds that no one knows exactly how fast it’s possible for progress to even move.

”I think it’s key to recognize the scale that we have to achieve here,” Lawrence says. “It’s not a case of just a few bad actors. It’s not a case of, well if we just applied less fertilizer or quit putting it on in the fall. That’s not going to get us there. It takes a high adoption rate of a whole suite of practices to achieve that goal. And we’ve laid out some of those in the strategy. And those types of changes will take time.”

Lawrence says those types of changes are put forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with several hypothetical scenarios. Using one as an example, Lawrence says it still requires multiple moving parts to all work in concert.

“It would require 100 percent of all of the corn acres getting the university-recommended level of fertilizer,” he says. “It would require 95 percent of all acres getting a cover crop, and it would require 34 percent of all of the ag drainage land getting treatment with a bioreactor or a wetland, and it would require changes in tillage; and it would require changes in the rate of phosphorus application. It’s not a one or other; it’s a stacked approach, and as we said, 95 percent of the corn and soybean acres getting a cover crop? That’s the entire state. That’s the type of scale we’re talking about.”

Lawrence chairs the Measures of Progress Sub-Committee under the Water Resources Coordinating Council, which is the arm of the Iowa Department of Agriculture tasked with tracking progress on the state’s nutrient reduction strategy.

The next Measures of Progress Subcommittee meeting is open to the public and set for 2 p.m. on Monday, April 13th in the Wallace Building in Des Moines.

To hear more about the efforts to measure progress under the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, click the audio player above this story.