A wetland area tour was a little too wet Thursday, but Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam braved the rain to tour one of Story County's newest conservation projects.

The 11 1/2-acre wetland pool was constructed as part of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and is the first of four sites scheduled to be completed this year using $80,000 from an agreement with Ducks Unlimited.

“Projects like this are enormously important to our mission because they prove several things,” Putnam said. “Number one, it's good for waterfowl, but that's not all we do. It's really good for removing nutrients, it's really good for people, and it's adding to the bottom line of landowners.”

The other three wetland sites are under construction in Hardin, Buena Vista and Carroll counties. Another agreement between the agriculture department and Ducks Unlimited has been drafted for an additional $80,000 to use toward four more wetland sites.

CREP provides incentives to landowners usually farmers and ranchers who willingly establish wetlands on their property for water quality improvement. In addition to having the wetland built at no cost to them, they receive 15 years of annual rent payments for all enrolled acres from the USDA.

According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers. In addition to improving water quality, these wetlands provide high quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.

The program allows landowners to use ground that is less efficient for farming while doing their part to improve and preserve Iowa's natural resources. Paul Mens, owner of the newly established wetland, said this program helps his farm do just that.

“Water quality is a big deal,” he said. “We put nitrogen on our corn and that's something we have to address.”

To date, 88 CREP wetlands have been constructed in Iowa. These sites remove a combined 1.2 million pounds of nitrogen from agricultural runoff annually. Mens' wetland alone is estimated to remove 17,250 pounds of nitrogen each year.

According to CREP Field Coordinator Brandon Dittman, those nitrates are removed from over 1,300 acres of cropland by taking 11 1/2 acres out of production to create the wetland pool.

The program reaps benefits for farmers, hunters and the general public in addition to reducing nitrates, Naig said.

“The reason we even set out to accomplish our goals in the nutrient reduction strategy is that we have shared water in this state,” Naig said. “We're really interested in bringing together all those partners who benefit from those layered benefits.”

Wetland projects and CREP are part of a larger plan to improve water quality in the state. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, developed by Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the state agriculture department, is a plan for reducing nutrient loads from all sources including farm fields.

From an agricultural standpoint, Naig said some of that strategy includes sustainable farming practices applied with water quality and soil health in mind.

“We've got management practices, so tillage practices like no-till, strip-till, conservation tillage, cover crops, those are things we look at,” Naig said. “It's a whole suite of practices that are involved in the strategy and we really need to be working on all of those phases to make sure we can accomplish our goal.”

Also present for the tour were Kevin Reynolds, husband of Gov. Kim Reynolds, and District 25 state Sen. Annette Sweeney as well as other members of Ducks Unlimited and the department of agriculture. The group also visited an already established wetland site near Colo.

The second site, owned by Allen Armbrecht, was completed in 2008. Armbrecht said he sees the benefits of the wetland not only for his farm, but to make a point about the efforts of farmers to improve water quality.

“I was glad to do it,” he said. “We've got to do something to help the public understand that we're working at it.”

Both landowners visited by the group voiced their appreciation for the CREP. Mens echoed the responsibility and willingness Armbrecht said farmers have to make a difference in the state's environmental health.

“If we're doing something wrong as farmers, tell us we'll make it right,” Mans said. “We're not out to intentionally harm anybody.”