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engaged partner organizations in the Conservation Infrastructure Initiative
acres treated across Iowa by bioreactors, saturated buffers, and CREP wetlands in 2017
acres of cover crops planted across Iowa in 2017

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Photo courtesy of Joe Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

Conservation Drainage
Working Group

How can I get involved?

Conservation drainage analysis

Determining Key Drivers for Conservation Drainage Practices 

The Conservation Drainage Working Group’s analysis determined key drivers for conservation drainage practices related to providing support tools, increasing technical assistance, and communications outreach, and practice economics. Recommendations were developed that align with the Conservation Infrastructure initiative vision, definition of success, and implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Ongoing stakeholder engagement revealed the critical importance of increased coordination between the private and public sectors to provide the financial and technical assistance for these practices to become the norm throughout the state.

Key Issues and Opportunities

The following key issues, associated opportunities, and challenges were identified.


The private sector is eager to support and enhance the public sector’s capacity and capability to create efficient and effective conservation drainage systems throughout Iowa. There is a need to provide economic alternatives and options to landowners so that scalable solutions can be brought forward, and local private practitioners can help implement solutions.

Investment Linkages

There are significant opportunities to link drainage infrastructure investments with conservation drainage practices where appropriate, including through offering innovative financing or other incentives.

Poor Return on Investment

Taking land out of production and investing in conservation drainage adds cost to the farmer and landowner and does not provide a clear ROI for environmental services provided downstream. There is an opportunity for creation of market mechanisms to pay farmers for these environmental services.

Cost Share Complexity

Public-sector programs, ranking processes, permitting and timelines are complex and can be challenging for farmers and/or landowners to complete.

Urban and Supply Chain Partners Needed

There are significant and meaningful opportunities to create new revenue streams through urban utilities direct investment in conservation practices in return for nutrient load reduction credits that can be applied to their point source permits. Additional opportunities exist for, retailers, restaurants, and food and beverage companies to support the adoption of conservation drainage practices to further enhance and protect their brand reputation by providing financial assistance in support of cost-share programs and sending market signals in support of these practices. This opportunity can be challenging for most brands to understand and appreciate due to the complexity of their supply chains.

Technical Assistance

State and federal conservation programs have varying levels of capacity, efficiency and effectiveness, making it difficult for farmers and landowners to pair conservation drainage practices with their drainage needs in a timely manner. By enhancing collaboration between the public and private sectors and optimizing existing programs and technical assistance services, farmers and landowners can more quickly implement conservation drainage practices.

Clear Value Proposition for Farmers and Landowners

There is a need to help build awareness and understanding of the economics of practice adoption (cost estimates and nutrient reduction benefits) within support and targeting tools.


There is an opportunity for increased private sector innovation to adapt existing tools and create new tools that make it easier for farmers and landowners to use in their decision-making process.

Complex Public-Sector Process

Private sector practitioners, without engineers on staff, are often met with a complex and time-consuming process that is required for design plans to receive a professional engineer (PE) signature of approval.

Education and Training

Available training and education for Technical Service Providers (TSPs) is uncoordinated and leaves many professionals ill-informed of the latest practices and procedures (e.g., edge-of-field training). There are significant opportunities to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of education efforts by providing coordinated and customized training, education and communications resources throughout the state.

Inconsistent Local Leadership

The turnover rate for local SWCD and watershed coordinators makes it difficult to develop trust and understanding of the many activities, investments and stakeholders needed to increase conservation drainage on a local level.

Local Approval Delays

The current planning process often delays implementation due to required approval from local NRCS offices and should be stream-lined and expedited.


a. Need to develop multi-stakeholder workshops and peer-to-peer farmer outreach opportunities that demonstrate successful practice adoption.

b. Make field days more action oriented and forward looking.

c. Provide more workshops oriented towards conservation planning and design to keep practitioners up to speed with innovations and standards.

d. Provide communications and/or sales-oriented training for staff/practitioners/watershed coordinators/districts to create awareness of practices.

e. More priority on water quality practices by NRCS leadership to encourage field staff to put more emphasis on the practices.

f. Broader campaign to raise awareness and build demand for EOF practices.

g. Active learning – Current workshops and training do not sufficiently reach enough practitioners or keep them informed on innovations and standards.

h. NRCS priority – NRCS conservation planning should prioritize conservation drainage practices where appropriate in balance with other NRCS priorities.



Current Projects

Conservation Systems Best Practices Training

Conservation Systems Best Practices Training project aims to change skillsets & attitudes of professional agronomists, farmers & agricultural students

(2) Multi-Stakeholder Training Workshops (20) Cover Crop Champion Boot Camp (21) Ag Retailer and Ag Professionals Cover Crop Program (22) Unified Cover Crop Messaging (33) Conservation Drainage Education and Training Needs Assessment (36) Conservation Drainage Education and Training
See the Full Project

Conservation Drainage Recommendations

The 17 Conservation Drainage recommendations are designed to create awareness and support for planning, designing, financing, installing, and managing and maintaining structural conservation practices across the state.

Technical Assistance

(31) Saturated Buffer Criteria

Evaluate the practical application of revised NRCS saturated buffer criteria.

Technical Assistance

(32) Integrate Conservation Drainage into Conservation Planning

Develop a decision support tool (e.g., checklist or decision tree) for use by conservation planners, watershed coordinators, and other public and private sector interests to identify conservation drainage practice opportunities. Evaluate establishing CAP payments for conservation planning, bioreactors, and saturated buffers to facilitate private sector engagement in conservation drainage practice planning.


(33) Conservation Drainage Education and Training Needs Assessment

Conduct a needs assessment that identifies audiences and evaluates their needs for education and training on conservation drainage practices so that coordinated and comprehensive education and training programs can be developed.

Technical Assistance

(34) Conservation Client Gateway Integration

Integrate the (NRCS) Conservation Client Gateway tool with state-level tools so that program requirements and expectations are quickly accessible and clarified for farmers and landowners.

Technical Assistance

(35) Private Sector Outsourcing for Technical Assistance

Collaborate with NRCS to develop a pilot project that enables private sector TSPs to fulfill the existing technical assistance needs on projects that could be designed and constructed in "bulk" allowing TSPs to participate to provide economies of scale.

Technical Assistance

(36) Conservation Drainage Education and Training

Develop a coordinated and comprehensive program of education and training on conservation drainage practices that is tailored to specific audience needs and engages public and private sector stakeholders in the design and delivery of the programs.

Technical Assistance

(37) Conservation Prospectus

Provide incentives to TSPs to develop a conservation prospectus that outlines the linkages between each step in the plan. This would become an avenue for piloting tools and sharing case studies that show best practices and key lessons learned.


(38) Leverage Watershed Planning

Use watershed planning as a tool to identify the most efficient potential sites for conservation drainage practices in terms of performance and cost.

Technical Assistance

(39) Assessment of Engineering Needs

Map the processes that require a licensed PE to be involved. Assess potential opportunities for revised involvement to improve efficiency without jeopardizing safety and effectiveness.


(40) Income Foregone

Place emphasis on federal and state incentives to alleviate constraints on construction during the growing season by incentivizing farmers to participate in an "income foregone" program that opens field access in the summer for more cost-effective construction of EOF practices

Technical Assistance

(41) Leverage Tools

Combine, leverage, and enhance existing tools at multiple scales (sub-field to watershed) to better and more easily identify cost effective sites for conservation drainage practices.

Technical Assistance

(42) Conservation Concierge

Develop a cloud-based service to connect farmers and landowners with conservation practice service providers to achieve their farm and field conservation goals. The service would provide the following: a. qualifications for eligibility for private, local, state, and federal technical and financial assistance and programs b. recommendations for most appropriate conservation practices by farm and field c. list of potential, qualified TSPs to help with planning, siting, and implementation of these conservation practices Conduct a pilot project with IDALS and NRCS.


(43) Restructure Cost Share Programs

Restructure programs according to the benefits of the practices and ecosystem services. Potential restructuring could include: a. Cost per pound (N and P) reduced. b. Weighted to public/private benefit. If benefit is largely public, the cost should be largely covered by public sector. If benefit is largely private, the cost should be largely covered by private sector (farmer).

Technical Assistance

(44) Fully Leverage LiDAR and GIS

Create a state-based data layer looking at flow ways, hydro-conditioning, and digital elevation modeling to make it cheaper, better, and faster to develop watershed plans and site and design conservation drainage practices in collaboration with on-the-ground experts and watershed coordinators.

Technical Assistance

(45) Smart Drainage

Link technology providers to conservation data and management tools. Enable IEDA to support system integrators to conduct a pilot in a county that has flooding issues.


(46) Appropriate Level of Technical Assistance

Evaluate technical assistance and administrative needs relative to financial assistance to support implementation and administration of conservation drainage practices to make recommendations on concomitant increases in technical assistance with increases in financial assistance for practices.


(47) Evaluate Financing Mechanisms

Evaluate the potential for different, new, or innovative financing mechanisms to incentivize structural practices that have greater up-front costs and evaluate potential roles that drainage districts could play.
engaged partner organizations in the Conservation Infrastructure Initiative
acres treated across Iowa by bioreactors, saturated buffers, and CREP wetlands in 2017
acres of cover crops planted across Iowa in 2017