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Ames to Partner with Landowners on Water Quality Goals

AMES, Iowa – Ames has reached an innovative agreement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that allows an investment in conservation practices on farms to improve water quality and help the city’s water pollution control facility meet future, more stringent nutrient reduction requirements.

Ames became Iowa’s fourth community to sign such an agreement. Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Storm Lake reached similar agreements last year.

Sand County Foundation, a national agricultural conservation non-profit, worked closely with these municipalities and the Iowa DNR to develop a model agreement that incentivizes cities and farmers within the same watersheds to address water quality together.

“These first agreements are providing a roadmap for Iowa cities to address state water quality requirements. They create a way for cities to assist upstream farmers with farm conservation practices that reduce erosion and excess nutrient runoff,” explained Bartlett Durand, an attorney with Sand County Foundation and the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.

“This cost-effective approach of financing farm conservation work offers another way to improve the quality of rivers, lakes and streams, in addition to expensive upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants,” Durand said. “This opens the door to cooperation across a watershed, and for more urban-rural partnerships across Iowa.”

The Ames agreement allows the city to invest in practices such as wetlands, saturated buffers, and cover crops on farms in the South Skunk watershed, to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding.

“This agreement allows Ames to focus on nutrient reduction from multiple angles. Not only do we plant to upgrade our wastewater facility technology beginning in 2022, but with this agreement we can take a broader look at nutrient reduction and also focus our resources upstream in the watershed,” said Neil Weiss, Assistant Director for Ames Water & Pollution Control Department.

“The watershed projects undertaken will not only have a nutrient reduction element but will also provide additional benefits such as increased recreational opportunities, improved wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, and source water protection,” Weiss added.

The state requires Ames and about 100 other communities to reduce nitrogen levels by 66 percent and phosphorus levels by 75 percent at their wastewater treatment plants. Timetables to accomplish this varies by community.

The wastewater reduction goals are part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that calls for urban and rural areas to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches the Mississippi River and contributes to the “dead zone” where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Research from the University of Iowa shows that Iowa’s contribution to this problem is increasing compared to other states.

Durand said communities like Ames could see significant funds from public and private grants for investment in conservation practices, as well as potential reductions in future capital costs at the wastewater treatment plant.

Robert Palmer, general counsel for the Iowa League of Cities, said, “This is a big deal for Iowa’s cities, big and small,” when the Department of Natural Resources agreed to these urban-rural partnerships.

“Cities and local farmers should be given flexibility to achieve the water quality goals set by the state,” Durand added.

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Sand County Foundation inspires and enables a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation.


EPIC’s mission is to build policies that deliver spectacular improvement in the speed and scale of conservation.

Photo: South Skunk River in Ames, Iowa

Photo credit: Prairie Rivers of Iowa