The five-states bordering the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have given a “Gulf Guardian Award” to an Iowa program that aims to improve water quality here. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says Iowa farmers have made strides in keeping fertilizer from draining off farm fields, rolling down the river and ultimately creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Certainly we’re very interested as well in what it can do to impact the water quality within the state of Iowa,” Northey says. “But (the EPA and Gulf State leaders) are very high on (the Iowa program’s) ability to expand not only in the state of Iowa, but to go to other states.”

Darryl McLaren, executive director of the Farm Service Agency’s Iowa office, says the project uses state and federal resources that are available through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. “I don’t think we can afford to be anything but proactive in Iowa and I think a word that we can adopt is coexistence,” McLaren says. “We need to be able to carry on our agricultural activities without bothering the economic well-being of another part of the country.”

Dean Lemke of the Iowa Department of Agriculture says because the program, 72 wetland areas have been developed around Iowa to filter surface water and remove the nitrates that come from farm fertilizers.”We estimate over the life time of the wetlands those 72 sites will remove 54,000 tons of nitrate,” Lemke says. Those nitrates, then, will never make their way to the Mississippi River watershed and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Rick Robinson of the Iowa Farm Bureau says Iowa State University Extension, soil and water conservation districts and other organizations have been participated in the project. “There’s been a number of people involved in this and it just shows you how far you can get with some voluntary programs,” Robinson says. Iowa farmers have signed up for government grants to help convert over 80,000 acres of cultivated farmland to wetland areas.