farmer on tractor and manure pile

A Tale of Two Cities That Are Partnering with Farmers to Meet Nutrient Reduction Goals

By Jenny Seifert, Watershed Outreach Specialist

On the landscape of innovation for improving water quality are public-private partnerships between point sources, such as cities and sewerage districts, and nonpoint sources, particularly farmers, working at a scale that crosses land-use zones: the watershed. Two places where such partnerships are happening are Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Madison, Wisconsin.

Point sources are required to meet nutrient discharge limits, which can mean expensive wastewater treatment plant upgrades or, as in the case of Cedar Rapids and Madison, it can also mean investing in and collaborating with farmers to put conservation practices directly on the landscape instead. Such partnerships are not only much more cost efficient, but they also increase the return on investment, as farms, cities, taxpayers, soils, habitats, water, and flood resiliency all benefit.

“So, a win-win-win-win-win-win-win, if my math is right,” said Adam Schnieders, water quality resource coordinator at Iowa Department of Natural Resources, who is working with Cedar Rapids and other Iowan cities to pursue creative measures to improve water quality.

Iowa and Wisconsin’s respective Department of Natural Resources are both in charge of establishing the options available for entities to meet stormwater and wastewater quality requirements, and each have created options that provide more flexibility in how they invest their capital.

In this Q&A, Mary Beth Stevenson, City of Cedar Rapids’ watershed and source water coordinator, and Martin Griffin, director of ecosystem services at Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, share what they’re learning and achieving from these collaborations.

But first, here’s the short story of how each is going about it.

The Short Story in Cedar Rapids

 2020 was a jumpstart year for Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Exchange, a nutrient trading program that incentivizes municipalities to partner with farmers to help them meet their wastewater permit obligations. In exchange for financial and technical support to implement nutrient reduction practices, a city can count the nutrient reductions farmers generate towards meeting its limits.

Cedar Rapids was among Iowa’s first cities to sign on to the Exchange program. Much of its drive is to reduce nitrogen pollution, particularly to reduce nitrates in the drinking water.

“Our first goal has been to implement conservation practices on city-owned agricultural land that is leased to tenant farmers,” said Stevenson. “In the past two years, we have seeded 2,000 acres of cover crops, converted farmland in the floodplain to pollinator habitat, and installed a bioreactor.”

In addition, the city has an agreement with the Soil & Water Outcomes Fund, which operates an offset marketplace and serves as a sort-of broker between farmers and municipalities and others who must meet specific nutrient reduction requirements. The Fund essentially pays farmers to implement practices, measures and verifies the nutrient reduction outcomes, and then enables entities like Cedar Rapids to purchase those outcomes as credits toward their obligations.

The Short Story in Madison

Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District led the creation of the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network, a.k.a. Yahara WINS, which got started as a pilot in 2012 and went full scale in 2017. The partnership includes many local partners – from the watershed’s 20+ cities, towns, and villages to local nonprofits and a farmer-led group called Yahara Pride Farms. The approach they are taking is called watershed adaptive management.

In a nutshell, adaptive management is a regulatory option to meet state water quality standards and allows point and nonpoint nutrient sources to pool resources and collaborate on reducing phosphorus, with the end goal of meeting water quality criteria together – rather than offsetting phosphorus discharges to meet permit limits, as in nutrient trading. The Wisconsin DNR has a useful breakdown of the differences between these strategies here.

Yahara WINS’ end goal is to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements in the Yahara Watershed for the Rock River, a larger tributary that feeds the Mississippi River, by 2036. They are focused on phosphorus runoff, which affects not just the rivers but also the watershed’s iconic chain of lakes.

“Yahara WINS facilitates partnerships, conducts outreach, and pools resources to fund phosphorus-reducing practices in the watershed,” says Griffin. “If the project is successful, it will reduce approximately 96,000 pounds of phosphorus annually, while saving local residents $13.5 million per year.”

The Bigger Stories, in Their Words

What do you think is the most essential lever of change in your respective projects?

Stevenson: For the Middle Cedar Watershed, I think there are three levers. The most important has been Iowa DNR’s willingness to create a flexible program. Second, farmers who are willing to partner on adopting practices that may be new to their operation. Third, the Soil & Water Outcomes Fund has enabled the City to partner with far more producers than we would have been able to on our own.

Griffin: The key driver to start the Yahara WINS partnership was the creation of a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the Rock River [by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources]. It named entities responsible for improving water quality. Entities could go it alone or form a partnership to do it together. Pooling resources proved to be cheaper than going it alone. One of the key perspective changes that occurred when putting together Yahara WINS was the fact that partner resources would be used outside of the partner’s “fence line.” The domino effect is that, since the resources are now moving from the utility and the municipalities into the watershed, there is greater flexibility for farmers to implement innovative phosphorus reduction practices on the landscape, which accelerates practice and technology adoption.

What progress or success are you seeing so far as a result of the project – in terms of both measurable environmental outcomes and ripple effects?

Griffin: Yahara WINS partners kept over 50,000 pounds of phosphorus on the land and out of area surface waters in 2019, nearly doubling the reduction projected for the year. [We are still calculating 2020 reductions.] While it’s encouraging to see actual reductions significantly higher than projected reductions, [intense storms] in 2019 demonstrated the need for continued innovation and adaptation in how we prevent runoff. Intense storms, which are becoming more frequent with climate change, can deliver a high amount of phosphorus to water bodies in just one event. It’s possible that the types of practices implemented in the future will shift toward those that are more resilient against heavy storms. That’s one reason why the project tracks carryover pounds and annual pounds when accounting for reductions. Carryover pounds represent practices that persist from year to year, building longevity and a relative degree of certainty into the project’s progress toward its goal.

Stevenson: We are in the process of running models to determine the nutrient outcomes generated through our cover crops and bioreactor in 2020. In terms of ripple effects, from the City’s standpoint, agricultural conservation activities result in cascading benefits to us. We are concerned with growing levels of nitrate in the Cedar River, which influences the alluvial aquifer from which we draw our drinking water. Also, the City is vulnerable to flooding, and helping reduce runoff volumes in the watershed can have flood risk reduction benefits.

Group of men installing a bioreactor in a farm field

City of Cedar Rapids staff observe a bioreactor construction project on private land. The City of Cedar Rapids invested in this bioreactor on city-owned farmland in fall 2020 as part of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Exchange program. Credit: City of Cedar Rapids

What is one thing you’ve learned in implementing the project that you wish you had known from the start?

Stevenson: It takes a lot of time and staff capacity. Running the models to calculate nutrient load benefits can be very tricky and requires a lot of data from the farmer on their inputs. Establishing partnerships also takes time. In December 2019, the City hired a watershed coordinator who has been able to focus on the project, which is definitely very important.

Griffin: We knew about climate change, but we could have done a better job of communicating effectively to partners and stakeholders from the start about how it plays a role in a 20-year project. Climate change can provide a challenge to yearly goals that can only be overcome with time. It’s important that we assess these data points as part of a longer story, not as a moment in time. The success of Yahara WINS will be measured as a trend. Some years will have higher phosphorus contributions; some will have lower. The important measure of success will be a downward trend in phosphorus concentrations and associated water quality issues over the course of the project.

How are farmers stepping up as leaders in your watershed?

Stevenson: The involvement of farmers that are willing to test new practices on their farm and partner with the City has been absolutely essential. The City has set up conservation-based leases for the ag land we rent, and we have not had any trouble finding producers willing to sign these agreements through a competitive bid process.

Griffin: Yahara Pride Farms is a big contributor to Yahara WINS’ success, accounting for over half of the total reductions in 2019 and over 90% of the annual pounds reduced (annual pounds are new pounds that are realized each year the practice is employed). Practices that led to this reduction included cover crops, grassed waterways, low-disturbance manure injection, and novel approaches like grazing initiatives. A great illustration of this important role is Yahara Pride’s leadership around promoting manure composting in the region to make manure storage and transportation more feasible for farmers. Farmers were able to test out manure composting and the equipment necessary to see how it could work on their farms year-round. This practice proved popular among local farmers and increased signups for Yahara Pride’s cost-share program.

There are lots of partners in each of your projects. What have you found to be successful in ensuring everyone’s voices and interests are heard in the process?

Griffin: Yahara WINS decided to tackle this challenge by creating a formal governance system called an Intergovernmental Agreement. It covers everything from the payment responsibility of members to the creation of an executive committee responsible for managing and dispersing the funds, and to tracking and monitoring the project.

Stevenson: We are in constant communication with Iowa DNR, the Soil & Water Outcomes Fund, and Iowa State University to make sure things are running smoothly. This is really our first year of ramping up the project, so we are working through all the details to set things up properly to ensure future success.

Something of interest to our readers is how to scale up watershed programs like yours – meaning, right-sizing them to places across the Mississippi River Basin. What do you think is a key ingredient to making public-private, urban-rural partnerships work?

Stevenson: Flexibility is essential. Allowing the cities to find creative ways to partner with farmers, especially in working with third parties such as the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund. Technical assistance is also important, because much of this is very new for all parties. We have been in communication with other cities to share ideas and troubleshoot challenges. Having an informal network of cities involved in the Nutrient Reduction Exchange has been really helpful.

Griffin: It all starts with trust. Openness and risk-taking, understanding common goals, and building “transformational” relationships over “transactional” relationships. These are the kind of relationships that result in creativity, the opening of previously shut doors, and unexpected opportunities. These types of partnerships are built to last. Also, the right business case. For a farmer, there is a clear business case around the fact that techniques to improve water quality will also result in reduced costs, healthier soils, improved water management, and more productive farm practice. For a municipality, the choice is to go it alone, taking on the costs and burden of phosphorus reduction, or work together with farmers to accomplish more for a lower overall cost. If on our own, the District would be pursuing a $140 million treatment upgrade to remove phosphorus from wastewater. The cost of this upgrade would be reflected in higher sewer bills for residents upstream of the treatment plant, who would be paying more while seeing no improvement in the quality of the lakes — that is, they get nothing in exchange for their payment. Through Yahara WINS, the District is paying $12 million for projects that will benefit water bodies throughout the watershed, not just those downstream of the plant. These savings are passed along to all our ratepayers.

*Stevenson’s and Griffin’s responses were edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

Mary Beth StevensonAbout Mary Beth Stevenson

Mary Beth Stevenson serves as the Watersheds & Source Water Coordinator for the City of Cedar Rapids. She supports the City’s engagement in watershed-based efforts to improve water quality and reduce flood risk. Mary Beth’s role with the City involves coordinating with multiple stakeholder groups to advance watershed improvement efforts. She is currently the Vice Chair of the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority and also serves on the board of the Lower Cedar Watershed Management Authority. Mary Beth holds a master’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Grinnell College.

About Martin (Martye) Griffin

Martye Griffin has always been about the ‘WE’ in ‘WATER’ and how human decisions impact water quality. He received his graduate degree in biology examining the impacts of excess nutrients on coastal ecosystems at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and has over 20 years of experience working in the public and private sector looking holistically at the interaction between human land use and water quality. Martye focuses on solving problems adaptively as a way to “move at the speed of trust” and sees it as is just the way we have to do business.

Header image: Manure composting in the Yahara watershed; credit: Clean Lakes Alliance


This post was written for The Confluence, a quarterly newsletter for watershed leaders in the Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). Do you lead watershed work somewhere in the MARB? Subscribe here>>

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