Reviews are mixed as the Iowa plan to cut nutrient runoff reaches 10 years

DES MOINES — As Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy reaches the 10-year mark, the state’s ag secretary says there are signs of momentum for conservation, even if the state is far from the mark on water quality.

The most recent data shows an uptick in cover crops on Iowa farmland, nearly three-million acres, but that’s only about a quarter of what is recommended in the strategy, according to Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig.  “We need to think of multi-decades here in terms of the work that needs to be done,” Naig says.

He says conservation is accelerating as we head into the strategy’s second decade.  “What we’re seeing now is more partners that are coming into this effort that hadn’t been doing this kind of work before,” he says.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy takes a voluntary approach to reduce nitrates from farm runoff into lakes and rivers. Iowa State University data shows a rise in cover crops and areas draining into nitrate removal structures, but Alicia Vasto at the Iowa Environmental Council says the scale of change is small and has yet to show in overall water quality.

Vasto faults the strategy for not setting specific benchmarks over the last decade.  “We still need policy from the state level to actually implement a structure that is going to help us see water quality improvement on a broad scale,” Vasto says.

Meanwhile, Naig points to programs like “Batch and Build” in Polk County as a sign of positive momentum. The county has scaled up construction of farm conservation projects by planning and funding dozens of at a time.