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Clearing Things Up for Cedar Rapids: RCPP in Action

The Middle Cedar watershed in east central Iowa is designated as one of the nine priority watersheds in the state’s Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, due to its high annual loadings of nitrogen and phosphorous. The City of Cedar Rapids, at the southeast corner of the watershed, draws drinking water from shallow alluvial wells under and around the Cedar River. More than 70 percent of the drinking water produced by the Cedar Rapids Water Treatment facilities goes to large industrial users like PepsiCo, Cargill, General Mills, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Responding to the increasing nitrate levels in its drinking water supplies, as well as increased frequency of extreme flooding events, the City of Cedar Rapids in 2015  led 15 partners in creating the Middle Cedar Partnership Project and applied for funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The project was awarded $1.6 million, which was leveraged by $1.6 million in contributions from project partners. The five-year project connects downstream water consumers with upstream agricultural producers to improve water quality, reduce flood risk, and improve soil health.

Initially the partnership focused on five sub-watersheds in the larger Cedar River region and built on two state-funded water quality projects already underway. The first phase of the project—led by the Iowa Soybean Association—developed watershed plans throughout the region. In the next phase, efforts have focused on farmer implementation of conservation practices to address the nitrate issue in the watershed. Partners focused on landowner and producer outreach to encourage greater adoption of high-impact conservation practices through joint outreach efforts.

The project provides farmers with funding and technical assistance to install conservation practices like nutrient management, cover crops, no-till, strip-till, denitrifying bioreactors, and saturated buffers. In its first three years of implementation, NRCS entered into 54 contracts for over $1.4 million with farmers and landowners in the Middle Cedar watershed.

Early results show that the project is working. Fields planted with cover crops in the Fall have averaged 32 percent lower nitrate concentrations moving off farm fields than fields not planted with over crops, as measured over three growing seasons and a variety of weather conditions. Over 17,000 acres of cover crops are under contract through the MCPP, with contractual commitments extending to into 2020.

In the Middle Cedar, bioreactors – edge-of-field ditches filled with wood chips -- are reducing nitrate concentrations by 42 percent on average for tile water flowing through them.

The engagement of downstream municipalities working together with upstream farmers and landowners is a promising, low-cost approach to treating drinking water.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. By leveraging collective resources and collaborating on common goals, RCPP demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships in delivering results for agriculture and conservation.

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