LETTER TO THE EDITOR - The future of conservation in rural Iowa

Monday, October 8, 2001

With leadership from Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that policy shift would continue

with an emphasis on natural resource stewardship which will further benefit all citizens, including the land owner.

The creation of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in Iowa is an excellent example of how a farm program can benefit many more than just the farmer. It is an opportunity to meet one of our biggest challenges to water quality head-on. Iowa has one of the most intensively farmed

landscapes in the world because we also have the most naturally productive farmland in the world. CREP allows us to work with and fairly compensate

private landowners for restoring wetlands on their land to filter nutrients.

The very essence of CREP is to filter water currently running from agricultural drainage tiles through wetlands as a way to remove nutrients.

Wetland vegetation can be particularly effective in "using up" nutrients from run-off. The program is focused on 37 north central Iowa counties that

have been heavily drained by field tile.

Research from a DNR-sponsored water quality project in the Raccoon River watershed (including Buena Vista County) shows that a well-established wetland can remove up to 40 percent of the nitrate running from farm fields in a wet year and up to 90 percent in a dry year.

In fact, computer modeling indicates that up to 29 percent of the nitrate in that area could have been removed by the wetlands even during the extreme

conditions of the 1993 floods.

Iowa and its landowners have made excellent strides in recent years to restore wetlands, but it is important to remember that not all wetlands are created equally. Many of those restored wetlands have been constructed with a primary purpose of improving wildlife habitat.

A secondary benefit to this effort has been improving

water quality. What CREP will do is create wetlands that will be located strategically and designed specifically to

improve water quality. We believe these treatment

wetlands will also provide

excellent wildlife habitat as

an additional benefit.

Because water quality is the primary focus of CREP, where these wetlands are

located becomes vital... computerized mapping systems will allow us to locate wetlands within a watershed where water quality benefits can be maximized. It also helps determine a wetland design so as not to adversely affect drainage of farm fields upstream.

The DNR currently has 23 staff members within its wildlife bureau working

directly with landowners on solutions that can improve our environment and their operations. This staff, when combined with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and USDA field personnel, is a formidable


It is no secret that in Iowa where more than 90 percent of the land is used for agriculture and 60 percent is used for intensive row cropping, the

answers to most of our environmental challenges will require a strong public-private partnership.

Achieving significant reductions in the level of nitrogen in our waters will

be difficult unless we are willing to look at new approaches like wetland

restoration through CREP. The easy "solutions" have already been tried.

Research at Iowa State University shows that simply limiting the amount of nitrogen that can be applied will not, in itself, achieve the level of nitrogen reduction being called for without significant economic impacts on farmers, who already battle thin profit margins.

Our lakes, rivers and streams are a reflection of what happens on the land.

In the process of creating the world's most productive agriculture system with abundant and cheap food, we tilled the prairie sod, drained wetlands, straightened streams, cleared bottomland forests and put in thousands and thousands of miles of tile drainage.

A program like CREP provides fair compensation for landowners to restore some of those natural areas we altered to make Iowa the breadbasket of the world.