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Developing a win-win scenario for water quality

Article cover photo
Collaborating with urban partners is one of the many ways ISA EPS works to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Photo credit Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association.

Agricultural and urban leaders are collaborating and identifying innovative solutions to improve water quality in Iowa. A new concept called the Nutrient Reduction Exchange (NRE) may play a key role in reaching the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS).

The INRS states major point sources (a little more than 130 of the largest cities and industries) must implement technically and economically feasible improvements to reduce total nitrogen by 66 percent and total phosphorus by 75 percent from current discharge levels. In many cases, this means utilities must invest in expensive wastewater infrastructure improvements. Another idea picking up steam is municipalities making investments upstream to achieve regulatory flexibility and other incentives.

One of the challenges with investing upstream is documenting the actual nutrient reduction and other potential benefits. Since municipalities are regulated, they must prove they’ve reduced nutrient discharges on their permits. This is where the NRE comes in play.

The NRE will serve as a tracking tool that allows point sources (even those not targeted by the INRS) to register and track reductions resulting from their implementation of nonpoint source nitrogen and phosphorus best management practices. The exchange also can track other benefits resulting from practice implementation, such as flood reduction, source water protection, habitat creation and increased agricultural yield.

By registering and tracking reductions, the NRE will provide a pathway for utilities to fund the installation of nonpoint source water quality practices. Acceleration of these practices can provide multiple benefits including showing that a collaborative and voluntary approach can achieve reduction goals without burdensome and costly regulation.

Through this system, farmers can approach cities — or cities can approach farmers — about funding the installation of a water quality practice, such as a bioreactor, saturated buffer, wetland, etc. Once the municipality agrees to pay for the practice, the practice would be registered. In exchange for funding the practice, the city would track the nutrient reduction for potential future use against regulatory incentives.

For example, the city of Des Moines is funding the installation of a bioreactor in the southwest corner of Polk County to reduce nitrogen loss. The bioreactor is expected to reduce nitrogen loss by an average of approximately 500 pounds each year. In this example, the city could track this reduction in nitrogen toward potential future reduction goals as required by the INRS.

The Iowa League of Cities is working with Storm Lake and Dubuque to develop pilot trades based on investments they are making as part of Water Quality Initiative and sponsored projects.

“Our community is making investments in our watershed for a variety of reasons including habitat development, flood reduction and nutrient reduction,” Jon Kruse, Mayor of Storm Lake says. “The League project and the Nutrient Reduction Exchange provides further incentive for our community to work with upstream producers so we can quantify and track these multiple benefits for our citizens to understand the value of our investment.”

The NRE framework is in the planning stages, but an approved structure is expected in October 2018. The innovative program will provide a great opportunity to fund practices in the nonpoint source sector, while also helping point source entities achieve their nutrient reduction goals — a win-win for Iowa water quality.

For media inquiries, please contact Katie Johnson, ISA Public Relations Manager at or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

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