Conservation seen as plus in new state nutrient reduction plan

Friday, November 30, 2012
Jim Lahn, district conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Le Mars, said continued strong conservation practices can prove valuable in producer efforts to further the new Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. (Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens)

Will Iowa's new Nutrient Management Strategy plan released Nov. 19 be a producer incentive for additional soil and water conservation practices?

It's evident Jim Lahn, district conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Le Mars, welcomes the opportunity to see this happen.

"We were told this was coming up, and we're hopeful farmers will voluntarily address the issue," he said.

Terraces such as those seen here serve as an effective conservation measure to reduce nutrient runoff into other water courses including the Gulf of Mexico, Jim Lahn said. (Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens)

He explained representatives of Iowa's conservation staff have had earlier briefings on the policy with field staff on the policy formation following meetings with policy developers.

The strategy is the result of a two-year effort by a team representing the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources in collaboration with Iowa State University specialists.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy objective is to curtail nutrient discharges from point sources into Iowa's waterways. It calls for a 16 percent reduction in total phosphorus and 4 percent cut back in nitrogen.

Also stated in the policy developed in response to the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan is the need for 12 states including Iowa to develop strategies to reduce nutrients going into the Gulf.

"We've known for a number of years this concern has been on the environmental horizon," Lahn said. "We've also known of the nutrient loading in the Mississippi River leading to high nitrates and phosphorus in the Hypoxia or dead zone."

He added that other nearby states have also started addressing the issue.

"It's always been preferable to deal with these natural resource issues at the state or local level basis," he said. "I think farmers given the choice prefer this approach which has a more personal interaction than that with a higher level government."

Lahn points to what he sees as conservation's major role in the success of the new strategy policy that allows for public comment from Iowans through Jan. 4, 2013.

The final version of the Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is expected to be released by spring 2013.

"The delivery of nitrates and phosphates to water bodies -- rivers, streams and other water courses -- is very much influenced by the presence of conservation practices, or the lack thereof, on the landscape," Lahn emphasized. "There's a very direct correlation.

"It's true, too, that if there are conservation practices on a landscape the soil is held in place, as well as phosphorus with the use of terraces. This reduces the phosphorous delivery to a stream or river," Lahn said.

"We have at the same time through additional conservation efforts, wetlands out there on the landscape that help with nitrogen up-take that also reduces nitrogen delivered to these down water courses," he added.

The "direct correlation" of the value of the terraces to reducing the phosphorus delivery is seen in evaluating the Phosphorus Index developed by Antonio Mallarino, Iowa State University.

Lahn said Plymouth County has previously been among county index testing sites for the index "considered a very good tool" for phosphorus testing.

"Soil erosion is seen responsible for the greater majority of phosphorus run-off to a stream. "When terraces are on a hillside and a rain event occurs, the soil moves only as far as the terrace and along with the phosphorus is held in place," Lahn explained. "The Phosphorus Index can then reflect the reduced nutrient run-off to a water course."

The Index "tied to" the National Clean Water Act is also used in conjunction with soil testing and nutrient or manure management planning by livestock producers as required for their operations.

Crop consultants also rely on the Index in their crop preparation planning with producers he said.

Lahn while optimistic about volunteer producer solutions to the problem of phosphorus and nitrogen run-off admits concern, however, to what he sees as possible counter efforts to the problem.

Such measures of the producers "going backward" are the removal of terraces and the drying-up of wetlands in producer desire for additional cropland he said.

Of concern are instances of such practices in the Loess Hills area. "This is the most erosive soil in the state," he said. "And yet, some of our producers want to farm as if it's by Sloan or Hull, and it's not the same.

"They consider the (existing) terraces inconvenient, a nuisance," Lahn said. "This is despite there being significant taxpayer investment in the terraces at the state and federal level."

Former landowners have invested in it along with conservation staff time to put them in, he added.

An additional benefit of "conservation-wise" farming is that it helps ward off drought damage, Lahn said. "Producers have said as one example that they got better crops above and below their terraces during this drought year."

Lahn explained this was due to the terraces holding water on the landscape rather than allowing it to run down the hill.

"What I really try to emphasize with farmers is that soil conservation practices and wetlands are not nuisances and inconveniences," he said. "We can't think that. Conservation take time but it pays in the long run.

"I would encourage farmers to consider the need to protect our soil and water resources for the long term as they want high yields on a per acre basis and high production," Lahn said. "In too many cases we're ignoring the need to protect the soil and water while producing these high yields.

"We need to be productive on good acres with genetics or new farming practices that improve our yields," he continued. "We shouldn't be bringing extremely steep farms into production with reduced conservation practices to grow more bushels of corn.

"There's a big environmental impact with that and without consideration of our water quality and our soil resources," he emphasized.

This Lahn noted was exemplified most recently in the recent Public Broadcasting Corporation's airing of "Surviving the Dust Bowl" and the cautionary words of Hugh Hammond Bennett considered the "father of conservation."

Bennett's candid observations of the time included those describing Americans as "the greatest destroyers of land, of any race or people, barbaric or civilized. "

He at the same time called for "a tremendous national awakening" to the need for the "bettering" of agricultural practices.

Lahn's observation, meanwhile, on the goals of modern day conservation goals and their importance is this.

"If on the other hand, we can protect our soil and hold it in place and improve our water quality, less soil will be eroded and carried down to the Gulf of Mexico. Our future water quality will be improved," Lahn said. "And, we will continue protecting our environment."

The full report, additional information and place for comments on the Nutrient Reduction Strategy can be found at