Significant partnership will increase Iowa wetlands

Iowa landowner Heath Stolee shows U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue his farm operations in September 2020.

Iowa landowner Heath Stolee shows U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue his farm operations in September 2020.

A dynamic partnership between the state of Iowa, forward-thinking landowners and conservation organizations including Ducks Unlimited aims to improve water quality across the state for residents and wildlife.

Iowa has lost 90% of its historical wetlands. This loss has led to 951 flood-related disaster declarations over the last 30 years. More than 50% of Iowa’s waters ranked “poor” and 500 waterways are “impaired.” Over the last two decades, Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat suitable for pheasants and other small game.

The state of Iowa has a plan to improve water quality, and Ducks Unlimited is taking a large role in it.

Iowa has developed a Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) goal of 45% reduction in nitrogen entering waterways. To achieve that, the state will require thousands of wetlands capable of treating runoff from up to 10 million acres of agricultural lands. Research shows that properly positioned and designed wetlands can remove an average of 52% of nitrogen and 85% of phosphorus from tile runoff water.

To help deliver those wetlands, Ducks Unlimited and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) entered into a three-year, $1.6 million agreement to identify, plan and design wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region. The agreement builds on years of successful conservation actions by DU.

“By partnering with us, they use our experience in delivering wetlands to speed up the process. It means more wetlands on the ground, faster,” said Mike Shannon, DU regional biologist in Iowa.

The goals are lofty, as are the resources dedicated to reach them. Because the majority of new wetlands will exist on private land, DU will hire a conservation specialist who will work with agriculture producers to enroll them in Water Quality Initiative or Farm Bill programs. These programs pay landowners to restore wetlands to parts of their property.

The partnership anticipates enrolling 10 farmers this year followed by 30 in each of the following years.

“The landowners doing this are traditional ag producers. They understand that wetland conservation is compatible with sustainable agriculture,” Shannon said.

DU’s Geographic Information System staff will identify potential wetland sites in three priority watersheds (North Raccoon, Boone, South Skunk). The conservation specialist will guide the landowner throughout the entire wetland planning and development process through completion of the design and permitting process.

Ducks Unlimited’s engineering staff plans to complete a minimum of six wetland design plans this year, followed by a minimum of eight design plans in each of the following years. 

Watersheds being targeted through the new IDALS partnership are shown in blue, most of which is contained within the Prairie Pothole Region (in yellow).

This new partnership is the latest effort from Ducks Unlimited to improve wetlands across Iowa’s landscape.

In 2011, DU entered into an agreement with Natural Resources Conservation Service to deliver all Wetland Reserve Program restorations in the central and western portions of the state. Over the four-year agreement, DU delivered 94 projects totaling almost $6.7 million.

Since 2017, Ducks Unlimited and corporate partners Wells-Fargo and Nestle Purina have contributed $190,000 to wetland projects, with an additional $250,000 committed by Purina and Microsoft over the next two years.

What makes this new IDALS partnership unique is where, and how, the conservation will happen.

“This is an opportunity to do a lot of wetland restoration work in areas and with partners we have not worked with before,” Shannon said. “A lot of our previous work was on public lands, shallow lakes and larger wetlands. This adds a different wetland component to the landscape.”