‘A milestone year’ for Iowa water quality

Record cost share for farmers, increased practices stand out in 2023

ANKENY, Iowa (IAWA) – Iowa saw record investment in water quality and soil health practices in 2023, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s (IDALS) annual Soil Conservation and Water Quality statewide report.

Two photos shown. The left-hand photo shows a bioreactor pit filled with woodchips, with five people standing nearby at the edge of a crop field. The right-hand photo shows a dug-out gulch containing a saturated buffer unit at a field edge, with a nearby group of people observing.
Hundreds of wood chip-filled bioreactors (left) and runoff-redirecting saturated buffers (right) were added at the edges of Iowa farm fields last year, per IDALS.

The work of IDALS, in collaboration with many public and private partners in both urban and rural areas, aims to improve water quality based on the strategies and practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“It was a milestone year for conservation and water quality in Iowa,” said Iowa Ag Sec. Mike Naig. “More Iowans than ever are saying ‘Yes’ to conservation.”

In fiscal year 2023, IDALS conservation cost-share programs totaled $23.2 million in state contributions and about $43.2 million in farmer and partner contributions – and those figures don’t count funds for edge-of-field practices or wetlands.

More than 6,000 Iowa farmers and landowners showed their commitment to water quality and soil health by participating in those cost-share programs.  

The on-the-ground and in-the-stream impact of those programs continued to grow in 2023. For example, 286 bioreactors (wood chip-filled pits that remove nitrate from farm runoff water) and saturated buffers (which redirect runoff water into soil under bankside grass) were added along field edges – with over 300 more currently in the works.  

Water quality wetlands had a strong year as well. To date, IDALS records 133 wetlands hard at work improving water quality statewide. While they only take up 1,300 acres combined, those wetlands catch and treat nearly 159,000 acres of cropland runoff.  

Along with removing up to 90% of nitrate in captured water, wetlands can also slow erosion, make use of unprofitable cropland wet spots, and provide excellent wildlife habitat. No wonder, then, that IDALS plans to continue ramping up wetland projects.  

In 2023, the IDALS announced an expanded partnership with Ducks Unlimited and is working with other partners to accelerate the construction of even more wetlands going forward.

Other statewide highlights from 2023 include:  

  • Record 3.8 million cover crop acres planted, per the 2022 INREC Survey  
  • The “Batch & Build” model maintained momentum with five more counties signed on  
  • Urban conservation surpassed the 100-project milestone  
  • 10th anniversary of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy recognized  
  • 50 years of cost-share through the Iowa Financial Incentives Program marked  

“We want to push further every year, continually recruiting more farmers, landowners and partners,” Sec. Naig said. “Conservation records exist to be broken, and that’s what we intend to keep doing. We’ve come a long way, yet we still have a long way to go.”

Published on Feb. 29, 2024