Water Quality Initiative Progress Measured Voluntarily

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On July 17, the Iowa Department of Agriculture (IDALS) will make available $1.4 million in statewide cost share funds. Last year the cost-share was a runaway success, with funding allocated to conservation on 100,000 acres in just two weeks.

The cost share is one component in IDALS Water Quality Initiative, which is guided by the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. A persistent criticism of the strategy, one that even EPA has brought up, concerns its lack of numeric criteria to measure the efficacy of producers' voluntary contributions to the health of Iowa's waters.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey says the Iowa Department of Agriculture is looking at a few ways to measure just how useful conservation practices are, including consistent measurement of water quality itself. But Northey says water quality alone wouldn't tell the whole story.

"Other ways of measuring is how active are folks in doing the kinds of things that we know help water quality? So, how many acres of cover crops do we have? How many folks are splitting their nitrogen application? How many folks are putting on nitrogen later in the season, or more precisely, putting it on when that crop needs it?" He says, "And, we're starting to gather some of those numbers. We have some mechanisms for pieces of it. Obviously we know who participates in our programs, but we're trying to make sure we learn who's doing it on their own out there that doesn't have a way where we're catching them as working with our programs; after all, that's where we hope we see real growth over time."

Northey says conducting frequent surveys could become costly, quick. Another approach may be to gather information through service providers, such as co-ops and other agribusinesses.

He says, "Maybe there'll be a real effort to look at working with those service providers that are working with farmers, that are selling them fertilizer, that are potentially delivering seed for cover crops, and they help up report what's being done out here."