Water quality researchers and extension specialists at Iowa State University have joined with scientists at 11 other land-grant universities in the Mississippi River watershed and the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Hypoxia Task Force in a formal partnership to strengthen efforts to reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The task force, established in 1997, consists of five federal agencies, 12 states and the tribes within the Mississippi River basin. The hypoxic zone, colloquially referred to as a “dead zone,” is an area where nutrient-enriched waters coming from rivers and streams in the watershed cause excess growth of algae which deplete oxygen levels as they decompose.
For Iowa State, working collaboratively with state and federal agencies to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields while keeping Iowa farms productive is not new. The new regional partnership is modeled after Iowa State’s successes and working relationships with task force members and state agencies.
“What was unique about Iowa State, was that while we had been doing water quality research and extension programming, we were the first university that said let’s take all that we’ve learned and apply it to fix this problem,” said John Lawrence, director of Iowa State’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach, and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We wanted to know how to achieve a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus getting to the Gulf from Iowa fields – what needs to be done, how many acres will it take, how long will it take and what will it cost. Getting to a solution that is based on peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the effectiveness of certain practices on farm fields, is important. But it’s also important to find answers to questions like, what scale of adoption is necessary to reach that goal and what might that cost.”
This Iowa State science assessment was included in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that was released in November 2012, opened to public comment and finalized in May 2013. Iowa State extension specialists have since worked with farmers to extend the knowledge and implement the practices.
“Iowa State University has been a critical part of Iowa’s water quality initiative planning from its beginning,” said Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of the Hypoxia Task Force. “That relationship was an important example to the Hypoxia Task Force and to other Midwest land grant universities which eventually led to the agreement announced at the task force meeting in late May.”
The new agreement has three key elements: collaboration between each university and the state agency in charge of developing a strategy in their state; collaboration among the land-grant universities; and farmer education and engagement through extension and outreach programs in each of the states to find solutions and implement changes on the land.
Matthew Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and Catherine Kling, professor of economics, represent Iowa State on the regional committee of land-grant university scientists.
“We can learn from our counterparts in other states regarding the research and how others are working with farmers to educate and implement the practices that reduce nutrient export to downstream waters,” Helmers said.
Lawrence said the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was developed based on the Iowa State science assessment, is embedded throughout the Agriculture and Natural Resources extension program.
“Every crop meeting we do, for example, we talk about the strategy,” Lawrence said. “When talking to farmers, they want to see the science. We have that. We started with that. Now we can also say every other state has to do this, too. We’re just ahead of the pack.”