A Sip of Sustainability

Sean McMahon

Sean McMahon

Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance

Iowa is making conservation and water quality a priority.

Like other Midwestern states where a majority of the land is devoted to agriculture, Iowa is working to improve water quality and overall agricultural sustainability. Because of the collaborative nature of Iowa farmers and farm groups, we have a unique story to share, as well as a lot to learn from other states.

In 2013, stakeholders provided input on a science-based Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that defined a path forward for urban and rural entities to improve water quality. One year later, three of Iowa’s leading agricultural associations – the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Pork Producers Association – established the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) to work alongside farmers to reach the ambitious goals of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses by 45 percent, in alignment with 11 other states in the Mississippi and Ohio River Basins. According to the best available science, if we’re able to reduce the amount of excess nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico, we will be able to shrink the size of the hypoxic zone, an area in the ocean that lacks oxygen, by two-thirds.

In recent decades, farmers across the nation heeded the call to reduce soil erosion by adopting conservation practices like terraces, grass waterways, buffers, no till and strip till.

By 2010, farmers had made steady progress, reducing erosion by 2.5 tons per acre. As a result, Iowa’s waterways have seen a significant and steady decrease in phosphorus – declining at an average rate of 2.3 percent per year over the last two decades. Steps in the right direction For more than 15 years, ISA has excelled at rallying public-private partnerships focused on improving environmental performance hand-in-hand with farm productivity. IAWA builds on this model by bringing together additional urban and rural partners and environmental and agricultural organizations to identify cost-effective ways to improve water quality while keeping nutrients on the land where they are best suited for producing food, fuel and fiber.

Iowa is the home to one of the largest public-private partnerships in the nation to improve water quality. IAWA and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) are co-leading a project, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, that is focused on eight watersheds. With nearly 50 partners and $48 million to work with over the next five years, we’re aiming to keep at least 900,000 pounds of nitrate and 16,000 pounds of phosphorus out of Iowa’s waterways. Iowa is also working on attracting additional private sector investments while harnessing market-based solutions and economic drivers to improve water quality. As IDALS Secretary Bill Northey is fond of saying, Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy is “voluntary, but not optional.” No matter where farmers live, we can all do more to adopt conservation practices and improve water quality. We still have a long way to go, but we are pointed in the right direction and are making excellent progress.

For more information, visit iowaagwateralliance.com and follow us on Twitter. Sean McMahon works with key partners to champion farmer engagement and adoption of conservation practices that improve water quality. Sean has more than 20 years of experience in conservation and agriculture, including leading diverse coalitions dedicated to improving water quality and directing The Nature Conservancy’s North America Agriculture Program.