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Iowa Communities Partnering with Farmers on Water Quality Goals

Forest City and Mason City have reached innovative agreements with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that allow investment in conservation practices on farms to improve water quality and help their city water treatment plants meet state water quality goals.

Forest City and Mason City became Iowa’s sixth and seventh communities to sign such an agreement. Ames, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Muscatine, and Storm Lake have reached similar agreements.

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 place of 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 agreements allow the cities to invest in farming practices in the Winnebago River watershed, such as planting cover crops to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Working in our watershed to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in our streams and rivers improves water quality for everyone and slowing runoff from intense rainfall events can reduce damage from downstream flooding” said Aaron Burnett, City Administrator of Mason City. “It just makes sense for cities like Forest City and Mason City to connect to and support farmers and landowners in our watershed to help keep our waters clean and generate nutrient credits that may offset discharges from our wastewater treatment plant.”

The state requires Forest City, Mason City and about 100 other communities to reduce nitrogen levels by 66 percent and phosphorus levels by 75 percent in the water discharged from 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 Forest City and Mason City could see a $10 match in public and private grants for every $1 they invest in conservation practices.

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

“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 empowers 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.