Mar 16, 2023 - News

Polk County's water improvement program being replicated

Saturated buffers like these that were recently constructed in rural Polk County use a system of pipes and vegetation to help clean water before it reaches streams or rivers. Photos courtesy of Polk County

An outreach program started in 2020 by Polk County to build watershed improvement systems in bulk is now expanding to other counties.

Why it matters: More than 100 land buffer structures, which slows runoff and improves water quality, have been added in Polk County because of the program.

Catch up fast: "Batch and Build" was launched by Polk County Public Works to increase the number of buffer projects — grassy areas at the edge of fields that reduce erosion and help remove nitrates before they enter streams or rivers.

How it works: Conservation projects often follow a cumbersome process. A farmer has to sign up for a government-subsidized cost-share program before hiring a contractor to install buffers and then later submitting paperwork for reimbursement.

  • Polk's system cuts much of this red tape by first mapping areas where batch projects — those in proximity of each other — make sense.
  • The county then recruits landowners to participate and acts as the central fiscal agent by handling site planning, government approvals, contractor hiring and financing.
  • The county also pays landowners $1,000 for temporary easements to access their properties while the projects are being installed.

Between the lines: Polk's program is part of an initiative with the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship.

  • Before the program, the county typically assisted with just a few projects a year, John Swanson, Polk's water resources supervisor, tells Axios.

The latest: The batch model is expanding with projects ongoing or planned in at least nine other counties, Don McDowell, a spokesperson for the state's agriculture department, tells Axios.

  • Plus, Polk County is expanding the batch concept this year to build rural wetlands — projects that are generally larger, more expensive and complicated than buffers, Swanson says.

Worthy of your time: The Confluence for Watershed Leaders — a national advocacy group — recently highlighted Polk's efforts.

What we're watching: Polk County is also assisting in urban wetlands, including agreements approved last month for a 30-acre project in an undevelopable area of Ankeny.


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