Iowa farmer Blake Hollis prefers to be part of the water quality solution. While the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit on farm-sourced nitrogen in watersheds that lead to the Raccoon River have drawn controversy, efforts to the east where Hollis farms are drawing praise...and money.
This spring, the Middle Cedar Partnership Project (MCPP) announced a $4.3 million effort focused on doing more of what Hollis, a Waterloo, Iowa, area farmer, and others in his local watershed are doing already.
"This year we planted cover crops, did some pattern tiling and installed some tile drain water level regulators and a denitrification bioreactor," says Hollis. "We're also experimenting with different forms of nitrogen management, and converted some fields from 20-in. rows with minimum tillage back to 30-in. rows with strip-till."
While Hollis admits to an innate desire to save soil, that wasn't the driving force in trying all these practices. "The local NRCS office pulled together a group of producers from our Miller Creek Watershed for input on how to initiate change," recalls Hollis. "They said they see the threat of regulations on the horizon and wondered if we were willing to participate proactively, rather than sit back and wait for dictates."
Your voice is important
As a hog producer, Hollis has been down the regulatory road before with the Iowa DNR and experienced both the carrot and the stick. He took the message seriously, decided he would rather get involved and have a voice in what has become the Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project.
The 42,421-acre project that covers two adjacent watersheds has a three-year goal of establishing 4,500 acres of cover crops, 4,000 acres of no-till, 18 acres of buffer strips and three drainage water management systems. Intensive monitoring, including nitrate and phosphate sampling of tile water by the Iowa Soybean Association's (ISA) Environmental Programs & Services, will establish benchmarks and provide ongoing evaluation of the bioreactor and other efforts.
"It's a learning process," says Hollis. "We've seen significant improvements in water quality with the bioreactor and other practices. They are having an effect, and people are talking about them. We are improving water quality and establishing their financial efficiency."
Many projects across Iowa
Miller Creek is one of 16 demonstration projects in nine watersheds in the state established as part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS). The strategy is Iowa's response to an Environmental Protection Agency's Gulf Hypoxia Plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphate loading of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.
What sets the INRS apart from past efforts is the recognition that while point and non-point source pollution are different, water quality is a common goal that can best be achieved through partnering, suggests Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance. The Alliance itself is a partnership of the ISA, Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Pork Producers, created as a farmer-led response to the INRS. Prior to funding the Alliance, the commodity groups had previously partnered with the City of Cedar Rapids, DuPont Pioneer and government and non-government agencies, including the Nature Conservancy and Iowa Farm Bureau, to form the MCPP.
"Municipalities and other point sources are facing more stringent water quality permit obligations in the future," explains McMahon. "Many cities realize that investing in on-farm, conservation practices upstream to improve water quality can earn credits that will offset some of those obligations."
Economics drive city/farmer partnership
Under the INRS, point sources like municipalities are responsible for reducing N and P loads to public waters. They can do that by investing in capital infrastructure at a cost of $20 to $30 per pound. However, investing in nutrient treatment wetland to reduce N and P loads can cost as little as 23¢ per pound, while other practices can run $1 to $2 per pound. These economics are part of what is driving the city of Cedar Rapids to partner with farmers and agricultural organizations to proactively improve water quality.
Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett sites quality and quantity as reasons for the city's involvement. The 2008 flood of the Cedar River and its tributaries cost the city $5-6 billion in damages to the community, jobs and infrastructure, and though the city gets its water from wells, nitrate levels are on the rise.
"What we are looking at is how to keep water at its source," says Corbett. "We started looking at flood mitigation issues we could get involved with, which led us to conversations with landowners and watersheds upstream."
"Anything we can do to facilitate infiltration and absorption upstream is water that we don't have to protect our community from," says Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utilities director.
Conversations led to creation of the MCPP and involvement in five watersheds over five years. Cedar Rapids has put $125,000 in direct investments and $190,000 in in-kind investments on the table over the next five years. This was leveraged by other MCPP partners and a $2 million USDA grant announced in January. These projects build on the work at places like Miller Creek, encouraging more farmers to explore and evaluate water conservation practices. Corbett, who recently helped found the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, feels passionate about these on-farm demonstration projects.
Work together not sue each other
"One of the things I've learned as I've gotten more involved is that every farm field in every watershed is different," says Corbett. "What works in one place may not work in another field on the same farm, much less in another part of the state.
"I'm also a big believer in partnerships," he says. "We couldn't have recovered as we have from the 2008 flood without private sector and non-profit help. We saw the benefits of working together. Water quality is a big issue for Iowa. It requires we work together, not sue each other."