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Cities turn attention upstream to work with farmers

Urban and rural areas form valuable partnerships with upstream farmers to take nitrogen and phosphorus out of water flows.

Willie Vogt

January 28, 2022

11 Min Read
Mississippi river at dawn
KEEPING IT CLEAN: Rising attention to water quality along the Mississippi River has officials in upstream cities working with farmers to boost water quality. The win-win situation created is enhancing conservation efforts across Iowa. John Elk/Getty images

There's a simple fact: Water flows downhill. And from ag land that flowing water from tile lines, waterways and creeks can carry along a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus that can end up in the watershed. This is a concern for the cities and counties that are required, as part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, to tackle the problem.

Here's the rub. Cities have major investments in water treatment plants that already remove pathogens and solids. The nutrient reduction strategy now calls on those same treatment plants to take out the nitrogen and phosphorus — which, for even small towns in Iowa, could be a multimillion-dollar investment.

But what if the city could work with upstream farmers to keep excess nutrients out of the water flow from the start?

That's where an innovative agreement to bridge the gap between regulation and action enters the picture. The Sand County Foundation worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to develop a memorandum of understanding that creates a framework for a city to achieve nutrient reduction targets without the need to invest millions in new plants.

The Sand County Foundation is a national agriculture conservation nonprofit that worked with Iowa DNR to develop that MOU, and to date, five municipalities have signed on — Ames, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Storm Lake, and, most recently, Muscatine.

"We've done research over the years looking for alternatives to in-plant nutrient management," says Jon Koch, director of the Water and Resource Recovery Facility, Muscatine. "We're in the mode of resource recovery, not wastewater recovery. We're working with native habitat as well as the soil that runs off, and trying to protect the ecosystem."

Koch notes that there's little opportunity to do that in the city where its legal boundaries lie. But the MOU developed by Sand County and entered into by Muscatine with the DNR can have an impact on the larger watershed. "It's pretty non-binding," Koch adds. "But we like to have as many things in our arsenal as we can." Muscatine signed the MOU late in 2021, and Koch is now moving forward to reach out to county Extension personnel to connect with upstream farmers.

"Wastewater systems never really focused on nitrogen until recently, and they never focused on phosphorus," says Bartlett Durand, director, water quality partnerships, Sand County Foundation. "Nitrogen affects drinking water issues more; phosphorus is more tied to algae blooms."

Durand explains that every local wastewater treatment system has to meet specific standards. "If you don't, bad things will ensue through normal regulatory enforcement," he says. "What we are doing is coming in and setting up this agreement between the city and the state, the DNR. The MOU is kind of a narrative contract — by which I mean it describes what's going on, why you're doing it, and lays out the procedures to allow the city to work in the greater watershed."

Urban-rural connection

That upstream conversation is the opportunity and the challenge. For Koch, and other Iowa city officials, the solution to the nitrogen issue is with farmers, but not in a regulatory fashion. They know farmers can be a key part of the solution if they install edge-of-field tools like saturated buffers or bioreactors to reduce the amount of nitrogen leaving the land.

The key is getting farmers to install the systems. Talk to most conservation folks, and they note that the on-farm benefits are difficult to measure. Asking a farmer to invest in these structures voluntarily can bring other challenges.

Polk County has worked to encourage farmers to install edge-of-field structures on tile outlets; and in the beginning, the county let the farmers do the heavy lifting, from getting a contractor to going through the paperwork. "In the first five or six years, we only installed six," says John Swanson, water resources planner, Polk County. "But our watershed plans identify the need to install hundreds of these."

The first step is making that urban-rural connection, with a city official visiting a farm. Swanson took on that challenge in a new way. He looked for ways to change the process, aiming to take out the obstacles farmers find when working to install these structures. "I wondered how we could change things up," Swanson says. "We worked with the Soil and Water Conservation District and came to the county with more resources."

Already in many counties, the Soil and Water Conservation District was involved with terraces, waterways and other projects with a cost share. Asking a farmer to put in a saturated buffer or a bioreactor brings on the hassle of paperwork, hiring a contractor and even being taxed for the money provided to the project. "There are a lot of reasons for folks not to make it to the end," Swanson says.

Bring on the blitz

Swanson and his team at Polk County visited field days to see saturated buffers at work. "They're not much to look at, and you'd see one, but also see three or four tile outlets on the same farm not being treated," he says. "Our goal was to treat every possible outlet."

To do that, Swanson and his team knew they would have to make it easy on farmers and landowners by doing the heavy lifting. That meant taking care of the paperwork and administrative details, and grouping the projects in a sub-watershed. In this way, contractors could be more efficient in constructing a series of structures in one section of the watershed.

Todd Peterson, water quality partnerships consultant, Sand County Foundation, adds that this "bundling" brings along another benefit: "This approach bundles state and federal funds and pays landowners a fee that allows access for survey and construction, so landowners do not get a K1 [form] after the project is [installed]."

The idea to handle the paperwork, funding applications and the minutiae of government came from an Iowa Watershed Approach project in Benton County inspiration. "They were installing wetland projects, taking on the paperwork and funding headaches for farmers and seeing success," he says.

That idea grew into a “blitz.” Essentially, Swanson and his team started in 2018 connecting with farmers and planning to install structures on every tile outlet on a farm where farmers agreed to take part. "We did targeted outreach to see if this will work," Swanson says. "The goal was to install yours and your neighbor's tile outlets in different group sizes 10 or 20 at a time, and that came together in the end."

Working with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the City of Des Moines and other funding groups, Swanson pulled together a program that involves Polk County handling funding, paperwork and hiring the contractor. Grouping projects made getting contractors easier, too. Swanson notes that a contractor might not be available for one or two saturated buffers or bioreactors — but would sign on to do 10 or 20 at a time.

The result is a sea change for these projects. In those first five years before the program, Swanson says six structures were installed upstream from Des Moines. In 2021, using the blitz approach, 51 were installed. And in 2022, 83 are scheduled, but the program is expanding. Thirty of those 83 are in Story County, where Ames is located. Ames was an early sign-on to the Sand County-DNR MOU program.

As for money? Swanson says he has found that for these kinds of projects, there is a lot of support from a range of agencies. In the blitz, the farmer does get compensated beyond the new structure on his ground. "We'll pay $1,000 as an easement for each tile outlet on the farm," Swanson says. "We are compensating the farmer for the hassle of the contractor being on-site."

He adds that a financial analysis shows that even with that per-outlet easement, the effort broke even versus the one-off strategy in the past.

Swanson notes that with this approach, all the players can set aside politics and complex issues to get the job done: "We have found a way to get people willing to install [these structures] and willing to work," he says.

Sand County's Peterson adds that beyond nutrient reduction, these programs are gaining wider attention from cities looking for ways to avoid flood damage to their infrastructure. "Keeping rainfall where it falls is a huge motivation for downstream cities and municipalities, as large rainfall events are becoming more common," he says. "City managers feel like sitting ducks. They've done all they can to reduce flooding potential inside their city boundaries; they know they need to reach upstream farmers and landowners, but don't know how to do that."

Engaging the conservation conversation

With the upstream effort to install edge-of-field conservation structures, cities can see greater impact on nitrogen and phosphorus flowing downstream, versus action in their own wastewater treatment plants.

“We hired a consultant in 2018 to perform a nutrient feasibility study to evaluate the improvements needed at the facility to meet nutrient standards,” says Neil Weiss, assistant director, city of Ames Water and Pollution Control Department. “In addition, the consultant evaluated the pollutant loading in our watershed and determined that our facility contributed 5% of the nitrogen loading and around 20% of the phosphorus loading. This shows that we can do all the nutrient reductions at the facility — but in the grand scheme, just focusing on plant improvements will not have a huge impact to the watershed.”

That meant looking upstream to other sources of nutrients and working with farmers in new ways. The DNR MOU includes a nutrient reduction exchange that allows municipalities to receive credit for those on-farm reductions. These off-site nutrient reductions can be banked as credit towards any future, more stringent nutrient reduction requirements imposed on the facility, Weiss says.

"This approach by the DNR allows us to make a larger impact in the watershed, while providing a potential future financial benefit," he says. "We'll move forward over the next 20 years to upgrade our plant to meet nutrient reduction standards. If these standards become more stringent, we can start pulling from the off-site nutrient reduction credits we've generated."

Cities and counties working with farmers to get the job done makes farmers part of the solution to nitrogen reduction. John Swanson, water resources planner, Polk County, adds: "I've sat at a lot of farm kitchen tables discussing this program."

Partnering for success

The city of Ames started working with Swanson when officials learned of the blitz approach. The officials also are working with Ruth McCabe, a conservation agronomist with Heartland Cooperative, to make those on-farm connections.

Heartland partnered with Polk County's Swanson in 2020 to engage the blitz approach in Polk, Boone and Story counties. "He told us it was difficult to get in front of farmers and landowners," she recalls. "We said, 'We can help you there.'"

McCabe explains that her goal and the cooperative's big push is to present opportunities to landowners and farmers, and show them they can adopt conservation practices and still farm their fields. "[A saturated buffer] is an edge-of-field practice that makes a big difference in water quality moving off the field," she says.

Moving from city to the country isn't always easy, and McCabe says her role includes doing the boots-on-the-ground agronomic work, finding landowners, presenting the program and providing reassurances from an agronomic perspective. And that requires honesty, too. McCabe says not every tile outlet is suited for a saturated buffer or a bioreactor.

"We're really the frontline vetters for landowners and farmers who might want to participate," she says.

McCabe comments that these edge-of-field practices will be needed. "We could cover the entire state of Iowa with cover crops and not achieve the nitrogen goals," she observes.

Thinking about the watershed in a larger picture offers the opportunity to improve flows and reduce runoff of valuable nitrogen and phosphorus. The blitz idea is expanding, and McCabe notes her role has gone beyond central Iowa to include the Cedar River Watershed that adds Benton, Tama, Grundy and any other county that has fields in that watershed.

Conservation realities

The key is making it happen. McCabe says there's a lot of marketing being focused on conservation, but the key is installations. "We have a joke on our team — 'Get 'er done,'" she says. "We go to another farmer, another conservation practice, another acre and drag it home."

When first approached by Polk County to take part in that program, McCabe was wary of "joining another committee. But they said 'No, we'll put you to work,'" she recalls.

McCabe has a personal goal that in five years, folks in Washington, D.C., will look at Iowa and ask, "Where did this dark horse conservation program come from?" She wants them to be surprised.

The good news is that Iowa may already be getting attention from higher-ups — as Bartlett Durand, director, water quality partnerships, Sand County Foundation, notes. At a recent Gulf Hypoxia Task Force Meeting, Iowa was a topic of conversation: "Radhika Fox, assistant administrator, office of water, EPA, in her opening remarks specifically talked about Iowa and municipal watershed partnerships as what they are seeing as the latest innovation and the best chance to move things forward in the Mississippi Basin."


About the Author(s)

Willie Vogt

Willie Vogt has been covering agricultural technology for more than 40 years, with most of that time as editorial director for Farm Progress. He is passionate about helping farmers better understand how technology can help them succeed, when appropriately applied.

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