By DOUG SCHMITZ
DES MOINES, Iowa – Conservation work is continuing across the Mississippi River Basin, according to Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, co-chair of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force (GMHTF).
As GMHTF’s co-chair, Naig heads state-led efforts to “scale up conservation projects in priority watersheds throughout the Mississippi River Basin,” an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) statement read.
Naig highlighted a few of the state’s ongoing water quality improvement projects during GMHTF’s Oct. 1 virtual meeting.
“I’m grateful that the Hypoxia Task Force gives state and federal agencies opportunities, like this, to share our water quality success stories and lessons learned,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of conservation work happening across the Mississippi River Basin.
“I am proud of all those who are out there on the ground, face-to-face, doing the actual work that moves the needle,” he said, adding “this work continues across the basin even during the unprecedented impact of the pandemic.”
Established in the fall of 1997, GMHTF was created to “understand the causes and effects of eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico; coordinate activities to reduce the size, severity, and duration; and ameliorate the effects of hypoxia,” according to the EPA. Eutrophication happens when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients which induce excessive growth of algae. This process may result in oxygen depletion of the water body after the bacterial degradation of the algae.
Activities include coordinating and supporting nutrient management activities from all sources, restoring habitats to trap and assimilate nutrients, and supporting other hypoxia related activities in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico watersheds.
GMHTF is a partnership between 12 states bordering the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, five federal agencies, including the EPA and the USDA, and the National Tribal Water Council.
These stakeholders are working collaboratively to reduce point and non-point source nutrient pollution in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), and the extent of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“We can’t do it alone,” Naig said. “Our public-private partnerships are key to scaling-up our state’s conservation efforts. New funding is allowing us to ramp up investments in wetlands and other practices.
“In Iowa, we’re continuing to make progress on the goals outlined in our Nutrient Reduction Strategy despite the pandemic, widespread drought conditions and a devastating derecho that damaged more than 6 million acres of crops,” he added.
He said the IDALS is working alongside 12 industry groups, “and one of its media partners to highlight some of our conservation projects through the ‘Clean Water in Iowa Starts Here’ campaign.”
“We kicked off the Clean Water campaign in mid-August and, each week, we visit a different conservation site telling stories about projects and promoting conservation,” he added.
In August, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue came to Iowa to tour the drought and derecho damage.
“We took him to a stop on the ‘Clean Water in Iowa Starts Here’ tour to see a 55-acre wetland in north-central Iowa,” Naig said. “I mention this because this wetland is a great example of private investments matching public dollars to help cover the planning, engineering and construction costs of these land-based conservation practices.”
A portion of the project was funded through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a partnership between the IDALS, USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“I’m grateful to the USDA, EPA and other federal partners for their continued financial support,” he said. “These funds are matched by private corporate donations from Ducks Unlimited, Nestle Purina and Pheasants Forever.”
Over its lifetime, Naig said the wetland will remove more than 1,744 tons of nitrogen in the watershed, and provide a habitat for wildlife.
“Projects like this help farmers maintain operational productivity, while minimizing the environmental impact,” he said. “We’re also excited about the Iowa Systems Approach to Conservation Drainage (ISACD) project,” which is a five-year, $10 million demonstration project funded by NRCS through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
Naig said the IDALS is co-leading the project and working alongside 15 partners to demonstrate the connection between in-field practices that improve agronomic, soil health and nutrient use efficiency, and edge-of-field practices that further improve water quality.
“This project will showcase the value and efficiency of integrating crop production methods with proven conservation practices to minimize project development costs, and maximize soil health and water quality benefits,” he said.
“When it is complete, the project is expected to reduce nitrogen losses by 1.185 million pounds per year and phosphorous losses by 40,000 pounds per year,” he added. “These are just two of many conservation projects underway across the state.”
Naig said he knows “this has been a tough year financially and emotionally for farmers – and all of us.”
“Yet, we’re still asking farmers and landowners to invest in conservation practices,” he said. “Many farmers view practices as an investment in the future of agriculture.
“Today’s farmers and landowners are paying it forward to protect their family’s farming legacy so their children and grandchildren can continue productively farming our land,” he added. “We know there’s still work to do, but I wholeheartedly believe we are on the right track.
He said his goal in Iowa, and hope for GMHTF, is to “seek out solutions that strike the right balance between improving water quality, maintaining productive food and transportation systems, and empowering people to enjoy economic prosperity up and downstream.”
“Water quality is a challenging and complex issue, and there are opportunities for everyone to get involved in the process,” he said.