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USDA grant will help close agricultural drainage wells in north-central Iowa

Jason Johnson
Iowa NRCS Flickr
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded nearly $5 million in grant funding for a program that helps create, enhance or restore wetlands. Iowa has received a part of that grant funding for a project in north-central Iowa's Wright County.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a more-than half a million dollar grant for a wetland restoration project in north-central Iowa, putting the state closer to closing all openings to aquifers on farmland that can release pollutants down into groundwater.

Iowa Agricultural Mitigation will use the $684,000 USDA grant and funding from the state of Iowa to close the last two remaining agricultural drainage wells in Wright County. The grant comes from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetland Mitigation Banking Program, which allows producers to purchase credits to compensate for lost wetlands. The Iowa project is one of six nationwide to get a grant, with the latest round of grants totaling nearly $4.7 million.

Iowa Agricultural Mitigation Manager Kevin Griggs said wetland mitigation banking gives producers an opportunity to make improvements to their farming operation that they wouldn’t be able to do if there is a wetland in the way.

“Through the mitigation process they can replace that someplace else,” Griggs said.

Closing the Wright County agricultural drainage wells will restore local wetlands, Griggs said. Iowa Agricultural Mitigation is aiming for about 75 acres of wetland restoration in Wright County. It will also generate credits that area farmers will be able to apply for and purchase to remove a low quality wetland from their property and replace that wetland somewhere else in the watershed.

“Iowa is getting very, very close to having all of the what used to be hundreds of ag drainage wells closed, capped and no longer able to transmit pollutants down to the aquifer,” Griggs said, “so it’s really important from that aspect.”

Griggs said he expects the Wright County project to happen this summer.

Agricultural drainage wells discharge tile drainage from cropland to underground aquifers. There are around 300 registered agricultural drainage wells in Iowa, and most have been closed in order to help protect drinking water.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is working with Iowa Agricultural Mitigation and Humboldt County to close seven agricultural drainage wells there this year. Don McDowell, a spokesman for the department, wrote in an email to IPR News that once those Humboldt and Wright county wells are closed, just four registered agricultural drainage wells will remain, all in Floyd County.

“Closing ag drainage wells and providing either alternative drainage or completing wetland restoration provides opportunities to better reduce nutrient loads from adjacent tile-drained landscapes,” McDowell wrote. “In the case of these remaining projects, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is recommending wetland restoration as both a more cost-effective and ecologically optimal method of diverting drainage currently feeding into the wells.”

The state expects to close those four Floyd County agricultural drainage wells in the future, McDowell said, and landowners for the remaining wells are being contacted.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.