ISA CEO Kirk Leeds

(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Executive Insights: Raising the bar

March 29, 2023 | Kirk Leeds

Progress. Sometimes it happens quickly and can be easily seen and measured. Other times, it’s painstakingly slow, stubbornly elusive and difficult to quantify.

Maybe that’s why progress is both a noun and a verb.

Ten years ago, Iowa embarked on an ambitious, first-of-its-kind effort to make meaningful and sustained improvements to water quality. Launched with bipartisan legislative support in April 2013, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy developed a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients found in Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Addressing and improving the environmental performance of nonpoint sources presented a major pivot in addressing water quality. Prior to the strategy’s deployment, most efforts (and resources) addressed nutrient movement from point sources.

Among its core principles was the need for conservation practices to be voluntary and supported by both public and private resources. Such an approach recognized the scope, complexities, cost and shared benefits of making progress on such a massive scale and across a landscape as fertile and leaky as Iowa.

Ten years later, the momentum in Iowa is tangible:

  • Cover crops, mostly nonexistent in Iowa a decade ago, are now planted on nearly 3 million acres;
  • Phosphorous reduction is nearing the strategy’s nonpoint goal of 29% (no-till, advocated within the strategy, reduces phosphorous loss by 90%);
  • Conservation tillage is used on seven of every 10 rows of crop acres;
  • More than 40% of Iowa’s row crop acres are no-tilled (nearly 9.5 million acres);
  • The cumulative acres treated by bioreactors and saturated buffers have risen steadily;
  • Acres treated by nitrate removal wetlands have increased by almost 50%; and
  • Numerous organizations dedicated to expanding farmer knowledge and adoption of conservation practices have been launched, including the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.

The Iowa Soybean Association played a key role in the strategy’s creation, and we’re driven to deliver even greater results over the next 10 years.

Significant increases in public and private funding will be key to unleashing the strategy’s full potential. Iowa lawmakers should pass long-overdue legislation funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund (created through Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy constitutional amendment in 2010). Doing so would dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars annually to increasing the pace and scale of conservation practices benefiting Iowa’s farmers, landowners and natural resources.

As we celebrate the progress over the past 10 years, we know there’s more work to be done. We were reminded of this fact when, just before Christmas, 50-plus mph winds scoured the countryside, painting the snow-laden ditches black.

The nutrient strategy has been a catalyst for forming new partnerships, helping more farmers onboard stewardship practices that pay and greatly reducing phosphorous loss. As we turn the page to the next decade, let’s proceed with great humility and resolve to raise the bar again.