DES MOINES — Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has requested $2.4 million for an agriculture water quality initiative to assist farmers in cost-sharing efforts to promote conservation practices.

Northey included a request for $2.4 million in fiscal 2014 and $4.4 million in fiscal 2015 to finance an Iowa nutrient reduction strategy that he predicted would make the state a national leader in improving water quality by promoting voluntary farm conservation efforts.

He also said it would show a good-faith effort that could head off pressure for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over regulation of clean-water violations that pollute lakes and rivers in Iowa and downstream waterways.

“We do believe that if we don’t address these (runoff pollution problems) that eventually we’re going to end up with folks who say it has to be done regulatorily,” Northey told reporters. “I don’t think that’s going to work. I don’t think the regulation is going to work because it’s so hard to figure out what each farmer needs. I think this is the right way. But I think that we open it up to that if we don’t continue to push ahead, and that requires some resources as well to be able to show our seriousness.”

During the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship budget hearing Thursday, the ag secretary outlined a water quality initiative request for fiscal 2014 that would provide $575,000 for marketing and outreach, $1,675,000 for water quality initiative cost share and $150,000 for staffing.

Northey told the governor the marketing and outreach funds would allow his department to strategically collaborate with farm groups, environmental groups, the Water Resources Coordinating Council, the Watershed Planning Advisory Council and other stakeholders to promote and implement conservation practices. The effort would include statewide outreach through farmer-to-farmer interactions and broad-based communications to education farmers and encourage participation in voluntary water quality initiatives.

“I understand that the budget remains very tight and the governor and legislature have a lot of tough decisions to make, and I hope they will give this request strong consideration,” he said.

The water quality initiative cost share will focus on providing funds that will be matched by farmers or land owners to implement practices identified as being the most effective in nutrient reduction and improving water quality, he said. The targeted, scientifically based practices would include proper nutrient application, conservation tillage, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program wetlands, bio-reactors, no-till, cover crops, buffers and drainage water management. Targeted watersheds would be identified to implement the practices and further evaluate their effectiveness.

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“We get a lot of bang for the buck from those cost-share programs,” said Northey, who noted the state has invested about $7 million in soil conservation efforts with farmers who have contributed about double that amount. He said farmer requests for cost-share funds total between $10 million and $12 million and some of that demand has been met by providing low-interest loans from a revolving loan fund the state also offers.

The ag secretary said he has discussed the nutrient reduction strategy with EPA officials and “they’ve been very warm to this. They really believe that there’s some significant information here and then, if we do the implementation that we’re talking about doing, that there would be a real chance for improvements.”

Northey said he hoped to have everything in place to make a proposal to state legislators to consider in the 2013 session in hopes of having the funding in place by July 1. Apart from the agriculture water quality initiative, the department requested a status-quo budget that covers negotiated increases in personnel and benefit costs for employees. Northey also requested that funding for the agriculture drainage well closure program be maintained, which he said would allow the department to finish closing 12 wells and bring the total number of closed wells to 262.