Measuring Progress


The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) was officially launched by Governor Brandstad in May 2013. It is a voluntary science-based strategy to achieve the Gulf

Hypoxia Task Force goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent. Twelve states along the main stem of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers are striving for that goal so as to reduce the size of the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf to its 1980-1996 level.

Iowa is leading the effort. In fact, an Iowan is leading the task force. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (’81 agricultural business) is the co-chair of the task force along with a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Iowa also is a leader because of the effective partnership formed to develop and implement our state strategy. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences formed a team to develop a single strategy for both regulated cities and industries and non-regulated agriculture.

The college led the science assessment providing the research foundation for land use, in-field and edge-of-field practices for agriculture to implement to achieve the goal. ISU Extension and Outreach is leading farmer education and implementation efforts. The EPA has asked other states to follow the Iowa model with the land grant university as a partner and science as the foundation.

Implementing the scope and scale of practices needed to reach the task force goal is a monumental challenge. Equally challenging is systematically measuring and reporting progress to those questioning if a voluntary program will be effective.

Because it will take time to fully implement the strategy, and because nutrient loading in surface water is impacted by weather and thus variable, Iowa has taken a “logic model” approach to measuring progress. Logic models describe the logical pathway necessary to reach a long term goal and define indicators for each step along the path.

How do we measure progress?


Do you measure watersheds, an ambient network of locations across the state, where major rivers leave the state? Do you measure annually, monthly, daily? Do you calculate, model or measure? It is probably all of the above. Ultimately, we need to see reduction in nutrients.


Before we see a change in water, we need to see changes on both the land and in cities. Indicators include acres of recommended practices implemented (cover crops, reduced tillage, split application of fertilizer); acres of different crops grown (alfalfa, pasture, perennials); acres protected by edge-of-field practices (bioreactors, saturated buffers, constructed wetlands); number of upgraded water treatment facilities.


Changes occur when people change their behavior towards the land and in cities. Indicators include changes in farmer knowledge and attitude; number of ag retailers actively promoting NRS practices; landowners putting NRS practices into lease agreements.


Behavior changes and practices are implemented when investment of resources is made. Indicators include state/federal cost-share funds; agencies and organizations investing staff, media and other resources to increase farmer knowledge and implementation; investment in equipment required for new practices.

Think of the indicators as dials on a logic model dashboard. It will take many years to see a sustained improvement in water quality. In the near term we need to begin moving the needle in the right direction on the other indicators if we are going to reach our goal.