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Clearing Things Up for Cedar Rapids

Contributions from RCPP

The Middle Cedar watershed in east central Iowa is designated as one of the nine priority watersheds in Iowa’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. There would be devastating economic effects to the region if Cedar Rapids was unable to continue providing safe, high-quality water for industrial and residential consumers. There is an urgent need to address the increasing concentrations of nitrates in the Cedar River.

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 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 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 such a nutrient management, cover crops, no-till, strip-till, denitrifying bioreactors, and saturated buffers. In its first three years of implementation, the 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 cover crops, as measured over three growing seasons (2014–16) 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.

Denitrfying bioreactors are edge-of-field ditches filled with wood chips that effectively reduce nitrate concentrations in water running through tile lines and then into local waterways. In the Middle Cedar, bioreactors are reducing nitrate concentrations by 42 percent on average for tile water flowing through bioreactor woodchips.

Drainage water management, saturated buffers and no- and strip-till farming are other practices installed by Middle Cedar farmers through the MCPP. Time will tell if this innovative partnership can help resolve Cedar Rapids’ drinking water challenges. The engagement of downstream municipalities working together with upstream farmers and landowners is a promising, low-cost approach to treating drinking water.