Officials found themselves in a predicament. The tools were available to make significant progress in water quality through new edge-of-field practices. But the logistics of installing those practices were complex and slow.
Then Polk County found a solution that would spread across Iowa.
Two innovative, science-backed practices — bioreactors and saturated buffers — treat tile water leaving fields and convert nitrates into nitrogen gas before the water discharges into a water body. But few of those practices were being installed or generating a lot of interest from farmers.
Between 2014 and 2020, Polk County installed a total of six of these practices. The pace fell far short of the potential to make a meaningful difference in water quality. It took months — if not years — to target the land where the practice would go, get the farmer involved, work through red tape, sign contracts, and pay for the practice.
“We understood that we needed to be much more proactive,” said John Swanson, Water Resources Supervisor at Polk County Public Works. “We needed to target where these could go. We needed to bring the idea to landowners. We couldn’t wait for them to walk into our door.”
The idea would become Polk County’s Batch and Build program, which identified a batch of projects in the same area to be built by a single contractor. “Installing one practice that’s a $3,000-$4,000 project one at a time is really inefficient,” Swanson said. “It’s inefficient for survey. It’s inefficient for design. It’s hard to even find a contractor who wants to install one.”
Batch and Build aimed for scale and simplicity. It delivered.
“It was the ‘easy’ button for me as the grower and landowner,” said farmer Nick Helland, who experienced what it was like to have a bioreactor installed before the Batch and Build program and another as part of it. “They were able to streamline everything and make it very few touch points for me.”
The results were clear: In 2020, Polk County installed 52 practices — a 767% increase over the previous six years combined.
Over a year and a half, Polk County installed 102 bioreactors and saturated buffers. Farmers never saw a bill.
The runaway success quickly generated interest from other counties, which are in various stages of their own Batch and Build programs. Story County completed one in early 2023.
The program also enables farmers to have another tangible way of improving water quality.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing the right things on my farms when I see that water coming out of my tile,” Helland said. “And this just aids everything going downstream to everybody else.”