Rick Juchems hopes that growers can be in the driver’s seat on water quality improvements rather than government. That’s not been the case during the six years he’s tracked the Chesapeake Bay’s nutrient-management problem. As past president of the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation district commissioners, he hears about it at national conservation meetings as evidence that “a lot that needs to be done.”

The Plainfield, IA, grower has seen successful grower-led efforts in northeast Iowa. For example, the grassroots style played out among 43 growers who voluntarily formed the Lower Coldwater Creek/Palmer watershed council. They tookthe initiative on rural water quality from the soil up. Using scientific measurement tools, watershed growers figured out what works best on their individual farms to reduce farm-nutrient losses.

For Juchems, that includes seeding arye/oats cover crop right after soybean harvest to anchor nitrates and sediment. “I hire it done so it’s not such a chore,” he says. Other conservation tools he uses to reduce nutrient loss are grass waterways, creek buffers, terraces, CSP windbreaks, no-till, conservation tillage and manure flow meters (to calibrate his hog manure application).

 “But each farm is different, and the grower is the best judge of what works there,” he says. Biofilters, for example, need to be site-specific based on available space and water flow. Similarly, cover-crop mixes are highly climate-specific.

The grower watershed group “took matters into our own hands before the government intervened to improve our streams’ nitrate levels,” says watershed group Chairman Scott Bruns, Allison, IA.

The group uses scientific tools (Iowa phosphorus index, the soil-conditioning index and the fall cornstalk nitrate test) to benchmark and reduce water-nitrate levels.

Of all the watershed’s growers, 70% took ownership of the problem by joining the group. “Having our streams on the EPA nitrate-impaired list got everyone’s attention,” Bruns says. For scientific support they relied on northeast Iowa Extension Watershed Specialists Chad Ingels and John Rodecap.

Anonymous environmental performance scores by field tell growers which agronomic practices work best to intercept phosphorus (P), sediment and nitrates before they reach streams and rivers.

The watershed average P index on 327 fields covering 14,861 acres is now 1.05 (low environmental risk). The soil-conditioning index is now 0.41 on a scale of -1 to 1.1. They reduced early season water-nitrate concentration by 30%.

Monetary incentives totaled approximately $325,000; $235,000 came from the Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board (three years) and $90,000 from the Iowa Corn Growers Association. This included a $15,000 investment in a woodchip bioreactor at the Nashua, IA, Iowa State University (ISU) research farm.

These growers’ grassroots efforts are a contrast to federal and state mandates that seem sure to follow. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force (www.epa.gov/owow_keep/msbasin/) has called for a 45% reduction in nitrate N and P load in the Mississippi River by 2013.

Iowa has announced a corresponding statewide nutrient-reduction initiative. “These are not easy targets,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. “Because there are fewer of us (in agriculture), we’ll suffer if we don’t have a science-based program.”

ISU scientists estimated what needs to be done to meet at least a 35% reduction on northeast Iowa’s Cedar River watershed (lowering the river’s maximum nitrate level to 9.5 ppmfrom a total maximum daily load (TMDL) of 14.7 ppm). (See also http://tinyurl.com/CedarStudy.)

“Farmers want to preserve water quality; they just need the right information,” says Rodecap, the

former Extension water quality specialist. “The more feedback farmers got, the more keen they were to do it.”

This same grassroots approach to solving water-quality issues is used by NRCS in the Upper Mississippi River Basin Initiative, says Kurt Hoeft, a grower from Charles City, IA. He’s also the director of the eight-county Cedar Valley Resource, Conservation and Development, which ISU used to study recommendations for nitrate- and P-reduction measures. “It’s key that practices adopted by producers are economically sustainable for the farming operation after the project ends,” Hoeft says.