Administering Soil Conservation in Iowa

Mandatory Soil Conservation Regulations

Iowa Conservation Incentive Programs

Federal Conservation Incentive Programs

The Future of Soil Conservation Policy


The development of soil conservation laws resulted in large part from the environmental and economic catastrophes of the Dustbowl and Great Depression.  Concerned about the massive soil erosion taking place across the United States, the federal government adopted a model conservation district statute, which was eventually enacted in every state.  Iowa was one of the first states to adopt a form of this statute, and through legislation and court rulings, has established a firm legal foundation for a duty of soil conservation.  This foundation consists of mandatory soil loss limits as well as voluntary incentive programs at every level of government.

Soil conservation laws, whether voluntary incentive programs or mandatory regulations, primarily serve to protect the productive capacity of Iowa’s farmland. The Iowa Supreme Court, in upholding soil loss regulations, addressed their purpose.

“It should take no extended discussion to demonstrate that agriculture is important to the welfare and prosperity of this state. It has been judicially recognized as our leading industry. The state has a vital interest in protecting its soil as the greatest of its natural resources, and it has the right to do so.”

It has also been recognized that the beneficial effects of soil conservation extend beyond the farm, in terms of the environment, the economy, and public health.  The Iowa legislature in adopting the statute creating our Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) provided:

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the legislature to integrate the conservation of soil and water resources into the production of agricultural commodities to insure the long-term protection of the soil and water resources of the state of Iowa, and to encourage the development of farm management and agricultural practices that are consistent with the capability of the land to sustain agriculture, and thereby to preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of dams and reservoirs, assist and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors, preserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect public lands and promote the health, safety and public welfare of the people of this state.”

Learn more about the history of “The Landowner’s Duty of Stewardship in Iowa.

Its important to note that Iowa’s courts have also recognized a certain level of stewardship required of tenant operators. This duty of stewardship arises from the covenant of good husbandry, which is discussed further in the “Tenancy Law” section.

Administering Soil Conservation in Iowa

There are agencies at all levels of government that oversee soil conservation regulations programs.  Iowa’s county Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) are charged with educating the public about soil and water conservation issues, assisting in the administration of state and federal conservation programs, and establishing and enforcing soil loss limits.  The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s (IDALS) Division of Soil Conservation administers the state’s conservation incentive programs.  At the federal level the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is responsible for ensuring compliance with conservation requirements for farm program participation and, along with the Farm Service Agency (FSA), for administering several voluntary conservation programs.

Iowa Soil and Water Conservation Districts:

Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship:

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service:

Find your local NRCS Service Center 

210 Walnut Street, Room 693
Des Moines, Iowa 50309
Phone: 515-284-6655
Fax: 515-284-4394

Mandatory Soil Conservation Regulations

As previously stated, soil conservation in Iowa is subject to local, state, and federal laws.  While conservation laws primarily rely on financial and technical assistance programs to incentivize soil conservation practices and improvements, Iowa does give local SWCD Commissioners authority to establish mandatory soil loss limits.  The federal conservation compliance law has characteristics of both an incentive and regulation.  These laws limit soil loss on highly erodible land (HEL) to a sustainable level in order for a farm to remain eligible for USDA farm program payments.

Iowa’s Soil Loss Limits

Section 161A of the Iowa Code enables the creation of SWCDs in each county of the state.  It also requires each district to establish soil loss limits.  Every district in Iowa limits soil loss to five tons per acre in a year.  This is the maximum soil loss considered sustainable and is commonly referred to as T.


Inspection of land for compliance with soil loss limits can occur for two reasons.  First, a landowner who has been damaged by sediment from erosion on neighboring land can make a complaint to the SWCD.  Second, an inspection can occur at the discretion of district commissioners.

If upon inspection the commissioners find that damage is occurring on adjacent land and erosion exceeds established soil loss limits, an administrative order will be issued to the landowner and occupant requiring measures be taken to reduce erosion.  Soil conservation practices or erosion control measures must be commenced within six months and must be completed within one year of receiving the administrative order.  A landowner’s submission of an application for conservation program cost-sharing is considered commencement of conservation practices or erosion control measures.

There are also actions the district commissioners can take to prevent excessive erosion even if adjacent land is not being damaged.  If the commissioners inspect a property and do not find sediment damage to an adjacent property but determine that erosion exceeds soil loss limits by less than twice the established amount, the commissioners are required to send notice of the erosion to the landowner or occupant along with information about available financial and technical assistance.

If the commissioners determine that erosion exceeds the established soil loss limits by greater than twice the established amount, they must send the same notice, but if notice of soil erosion in excess of twice the established limits is sent for three or more consecutive years, the commissioners may seek a court order requiring compliance with a conservation plan developed or approved by the district commissioners.


The district cannot require soil conservation practices on land unless cost-share money has been approved and made available.  However, these financial incentives are limited to the lesser of 50 percent of the estimated cost or 50 percent of the actual cost of establishing the practices.

How have the courts viewed soil loss regulations?

In Woodbury County Soil Conservation District v. Ortner a landowner, ordered by the SWCD commissioners to take land out of production or establish terraces in order to comply with soil loss limits, challenged the soil loss limit regulation as an unconstitutional taking of his property.   (279 N.W.2d 276 (1979)).  While the district court agreed, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law stating, “The state has a vital interest in protecting its soil as the greatest of its natural resources and it has a right to do so.”  The Court also stated that while the regulation “imposes an extra financial burden on defendants, it is one the state has a right to exact.”

This case recognizes the role soil conservation plays in promoting the welfare of all citizens and the state’s authority to regulate land use decisions impacting soil resources.  However, it also recognizes that regulations creating excessive burdens may be viewed as a taking, which then require compensation, and that cost-sharing programs play an important role in lessening regulatory hardships on landowners.

Soil Conservation Compliance Law

Although not technically a mandatory regulation, conservation compliance laws do require producers to refrain from certain agricultural activities or apply approved conservation systems on environmentally sensitive land in order to receive USDA farm program benefits. Adopted as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the purpose of compliance provisions is to improve consistency between commodity and conservation programs. While these laws are also used to protect wetlands and grasslands the information contained here focuses on compliance provisions aimed at promoting soil conservation.


Soil conservation compliance applies to land classified as Highly Erodible Land (HEL).  This classification describes land that has potential erosion equal to or greater than eight times the rate at which the soil can sustain productivity.  A field that only has some areas that are highly erodible is considered HEL if at least one-third of the field is highly erodible or if 50 acres or more of the field is highly erodible.

HEL compliance provisions require a substantial reduction in soil erosion on highly erodible land through the application of an approved conservation plan.  Owners and operators of highly erodible land develop and maintain a conservation plan with the assistance of NRCS personnel.  Conservation plans must be approved by conservation districts. Contact local FSA and NRCS office for assistance.

It is the owner or operator’s responsibility to certify that the conservation plan is being applied. Arrangements must be made for a revision of the conservation plan if there are changes in land use, crop rotation or management, conservation practices, or in the schedule for conservation practice installation if these changes affect the substantial reduction of soil erosion.


USDA uses the Compliance Status Review (CSR), an annual inspection of sample farmland tracts receiving Federal farm program payments, in order to help ensure compliance with conservation systems.  Sample farms are for the most part chosen at random.  A portion are also selected due to increased potential for non-compliance, such as farms where temporary variances or waivers were granted in previous years.  In 2011 Iowa NRCS began a pilot program to use aerial surveillance to spot potential compliance violations that could then be followed up on the ground by county NRCS personnel.

Producers have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the FSA.  The first step is to request a one year variance for any of the following reasons:  1) violations occurred in order to address specific problems, including weather, pests, and disease, 2) the failure to comply was beyond the control of the producer; 3) the failure to comply was minor and technical in nature and had a minimal effect on erosion control, or 4) adherence to the conservation plan would work an undue economic hardship on the producer.  If a variance does not apply, the producer can request a field review for reconsideration of the NRCS decision.

If reconsideration is denied, the producer can request a waiver from the FSA office for one of the following exceptions: 1) the producer has made a good faith effort to follow the conservation plan and did not intentionally violate the compliance provisions, 2) the person relied on an NRCS determination that the land was not highly erodible, 3) the producer has complied with a conservation system approved by a conservation district and is in conformity with NRCS technical standards, and 4) the violation occurred on two acres or less and was not part of a plan to circumvent conservation requirements.

If a waiver does not apply, the producer can first appeal the FSA decision to the local FSA committee followed by the USDA National Appeals Division.  After these administrative remedies are foregone the producer can sue in federal district court.

In addition, persons receiving an adverse decision have the right to request mediation.  A request for mediation must be made after a determination of ineligibility but prior to any appeal hearing.

Benefits Impacted by Compliance Provisions

The following list of Federal farm programs require compliance with conservation plans for HEL classified land.  Its important to remember that non-compliance may impact participation in USDA programs even if a new tenant comes onto the land to farm.

  • Conservation Reserve Program
  • Conservation Security Program
  • Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act Operating Loans
  • Crop Disaster Assistance
  • Dairy Marketing Assistance Program
  • Deficiency Payments
  • Direct and Counter Cyclical Program
  • Emergency Feed Program
  • Environmental Quality Assistance Program
  • Farmland Protection Program
  • Farm Storage Loans
  • Grassland Reserve Program
  • Non-insured Assisted Program for Fruit and Vegetable Producers
  • Wetlands Reserve Program
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program
  • Wool and Mohair Programs

Iowa Incentive Programs

Iowa Cost-Share Assistance and Incentives

Administered by IDALS and local SWCDs, this program is designed to help farmers address a number of environmental concerns, including soil conservation.


Participants must be agricultural producers and SWCD cooperators to qualify.  As a cooperator, the producer will receive technical information from the conservation district and grants district personnel the right to access the participant’s property.

Participating land must be privately owned and in agricultural production, meaning the commercial production of food and fiber.  Tracts less than 10 acres and with less than $2500 in annual sales of agricultural products may not qualify.

Funding is available for both temporary practices and permanent conservation improvements.  Eligible temporary practices include no-till, strip till, ridge till, critical area planting, contour farming, strip cropping, field borders, and filter strips.  Permanent practices include grade stabilization, terraces, diversion, windbreaks, grass strips, grassed waterways, pasture and hay land planting, tree planting, and conservation cover.


County SWCDs are generally the first point of contact for applying for conservation cost-share assistance.  IDALs Division of Soil Conservation has developed a new website by which to apply for assistance and to track applications and view information, such as Management/Performance Agreements.


Local SWCDs establish priorities by which to rank applications based on county farm practices and environmental concerns.

Producer Duties

Cost-share contracts can last for a period of 20 years.  Participants must agree to maintain the practices for a term specified in a Management/Performance Agreement.  Participants also agree not to remove or modify improvements without consent of the SWCD commissioners and to notify subsequent owners of the agreement.


The amount of cost-share money available to landowners depends on several circumstances. Cost-share limits for specific circumstances are as follows:

  • Fifty percent of the cost for voluntary permanent soil and water conservation improvements.
  • Seventy-five percent of the cost for permanent soil conservation practices on watersheds above publicly owned lakes.
  • One-hundred percent of the cost for establishing permanent grass and buffer zones, including erosion control structures and practices to mitigate the effects of concentrated runoff on surface water quality.
  • Fifty percent of the cost of establishing mandatory soil and water conservation practices. SWCD commissioners may allocate an amount for management of conservation practices and the State Soil Conservation Committee may authorize a higher proportion of cost-sharing on a case by case basis.
  • The cost share rate will be one half the otherwise applicable rate if the land is Conservation Cover – a tract of agricultural land which has not been plowed or used for growing row crops at any time within 15 years prior to January 1, 1981.

Conservation Low-Interest Loans

Part of Iowa’s Revolving Loan Fund, these low-interest loans are administered by local SWCDs, IDALS Division of Soil Conservation, and Iowa Finance Authority.  The loans can be used to establish soil conservation practices, as well as address other environmental concerns.

The following practices are eligible for the program:

  • Terraces, grade stabilization structures, water & sediment control basins
  • Pasture & hay land planting or prescribed grazing
  • Grassed waterways and filter strips
  • Field borders, windbreaks and buffers
  • Waste storage facilities
  • Deep bedded buildings or other roofed manure control structures

Loan interest rates cannot exceed three percent and loans can be used to fund 100% of the cost of implementation.  The loan can be used in conjunction with other grants and sources of funding.  The amount of loans is limited to a maximum of $500,000 per borrower with a 15 year term.

Conservation No-Interest Loans

These no-interest loans, also part of Iowa’s Revolving Loan Fund, are available to landowners for the construction of permanent soil conservation practices in order to meet SWCD soil loss limits.  This program is also administered through IDALS Department of Soil Conservation, Iowa Finance Authority, and local SWCDS, who establish priorities for fund allocation.  Applications can be obtained and submitted at local SWCD offices.

Landowners must agree to maintain the practices for a term specified in a Management/Performance Agreement.  The following limitations apply no-interest loans:  1) Loan funds are not available for land classified as Conservation Cover, which means a tract of agricultural land which has not been plowed or used for growing row crops at any time within 15 years prior to January 1, 1981.  2) Loan funds may not be used in combination with public cost-sharing funds for a particular soil and water conservation practice.  3) The maximum loan amount is $10,000 for a 10 year period.

Federal Incentive Programs

The federal government has a number of voluntary conservation incentive programs.  These programs primarily consist of cost-sharing arrangements for constructing or adopting new conservation practices, payments for practices that provide in environmental benefits, and rent payments for retiring highly erodible land.  Some programs which may help reduce soil erosion but have other primary conservation objectives, such as Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), are not listed here.  The programs discussed below, while addressing multiple conservation concerns, are those used most often for promoting soil conservation.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

CRP is designed to prevent the erosion of topsoil and reduce water runoff and sedimentation.  This is accomplished through rental payments to farmland owners who convert land used for agricultural production to resource-conserving vegetative covers, typically grasses or trees.  CRP also produces excellent wildlife habitat and is a popular program with wildlife organizations.  CRP is administered through FSA but technical support is provided by NRCS as well as local conservation districts.


A producer must have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months prior to close of the CRP sign-up period.  However, exceptions exist for owners that acquired the land due to the death of the previous owner, owners that exercised a timely right of redemption during foreclosure, or where the FSA is assured that the new owner did not require the land for the purpose of placing it in CRP.  A producer with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $1 million may not receive CRP benefits.  Producers must also be in compliance with highly erodible land and wetland conservation provisions, which are discussed in the Soil Conservation Compliance Law section below.

Eligible cropland must have been planted to an agricultural commodity for four of the previous six years from 2002 to 2007, and it must be physically and legally capable of being planted to an agricultural commodity.  The land must also meet one of the following requirements:  Have a weighted average erosion index of eight or higher, be expiring CRP acreage, or be located in a CRP conservation priority area.  Marginal pasture land is eligible if it is suitable for use as a riparian buffer, or located located adjacent to a permanent stream corridor and is capable of substantially reducing sediment and runoff that would otherwise be deposited into the adjacent stream.


CRP applications are submitted to local FSA offices during designated sign-up periods.  There is also a continuous sign-up period limited to acres devoted to specific conservation practices, such as filter strips, riparian buffers, grassed waterways, field windbreaks, shelterbelts, living snow fences, salt-tolerant vegetation, shallow water areas for wildlife, and wellhead protection.


FSA ranks applications according to the Environmental Benefits Index, which is used to determine the environmental benefits provided.  Factors used in the ranking process include prevention of soil erosion, protection of water quality, wildlife benefits, soil productivity, air quality, the likelihood for continued non-agricultural use after expiration of the contract period, and the cost of implementation.  Land offered in the continuous sign-up may be automatically accepted without consideration of ranking.

Producer Duties

CRP contracts are typically for a 10 year term.  Land used for riparian buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, hardwood trees, shelterbelts, windbreaks, and wildlife corridors may have a contract term between 10 and 15 years.  All contracts expire on September 30 of the appropriate year.

Participants in CRP must implement a conservation plan and maintain conservation improvements in accordance with the schedule incorporated into the conservation plan.  Grazing, harvesting, or other commercial uses of CRP land are prohibited.  Exceptions may be granted for shooting preserves, harvesting biomass, controlling invasive species and weed infestations, installing wind turbines, forestry maintenance, the sale of environmental service credits, or responding to a drought or other emergency.  Exceptions will only be granted in exchange for payment reductions.


CRP payments include funds for establishing the initial conservation cover and rental payments each year the land is enrolled in CRP.  Rental rates are based on the productivity of the soil in each county and the average cash rent.  Applicants willing to accept lower rent improve their chance for selection.  A person or legal entity may not receive more than $50,000 in CRP payment in any fiscal year.

Under the Transition Incentives Program (TIP) retired or retiring owners may receive two additional rental payments beyond the term of the contract by leasing expiring CRP land to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher.  In order to qualify the tenant must adopt a conservation plan, the lease must be for a term of five years or greater, and the landlord and tenant cannot be family members.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

Like EQIP, CSP is a voluntary incentive based working lands program.  However, unlike EQIP, CSP is designed to not only pay producers for installing and adopting new conservation practices, but it also compensates producers for improving, maintaining, and managing existing activities.  In essence, CSP pays good land stewards in accordance with the environmental benefits they’re producing.


CSP participants must have the legal control over the property for the entire contract period.  Participants must also be the operator of record in the Farm Service Agency (FSA) record system.  Exceptions to the operator of record requirement may be granted in some cases.  Producers are not eligible if their average adjusted gross non-farm income is greater than $1 million, unless two-thirds or more of their average adjusted gross income is attributable to farming activities.

Land eligible for CSP includes private or tribal cropland, grazing land, and some forest land located on a farm operation.  Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), or the Conservation Security Program is not eligible for CSP enrollment.  Land must also be in compliance with highly erodible land and wetland conservation provisions, which are discussed in the Soil Conservation Compliance Law section below.

Practices that address water quality, air quality, soil quality, and other environmental concerns are eligible, with the express exception of animal-waste storage or treatment facilities or waste transport and transfer devices for animal feeding operations.

NRCS provides a self-screening checklist to help producers determine if CSP is an appropriate program for them.  The checklist is available at


CSP applications are taken by local NRCS offices.  The application will include records of addressing at least one resource concern on the farm prior to applying for CSP and express agreement to address at least one additional resource concern.  The application must include all of the land in a producer’s operation.  This means all of the land in the producer’s control for the duration of the CSP contract.


The NRCS State Conservationist chooses priority resource concerns for the state.  Applications are then ranked in relation to one another based on the number of resource concerns the applicant has addressed prior to submitting an application as well as the number of resource concerns the applicant is willing to address during the term of the contract.  Producers can increase their ranking and payments by proposing enhancement “bundles,” conservation practices that when implemented as a group provide improved conservation performance.

The cost of the environmental benefits is also a factor in selecting CSP applicants.  However, an offer by a producer to take lower payments cannot be used to improve the likelihood of selection.

Producer Duties

CSP contracts last for a period of five years.  Participants are required to continue producing the environmental benefits throughout the five year contract.  A plan will be developed with NRCS field personnel and incorporated into the agreement.  Keeping records and reporting farm activities and maintenance of conservation enhancements to the local NRCS office is a critical part of CSP participation.


CSP participants are paid for their conservation performance.  Performance is determined by establishing Performance Points for different conservation practices and Payment Rates for different land uses, including cropland, pastured cropland, pasture, range, and forest.  The following formula is then used to determine the payment amount.

Annual Land Use Payment = Land Use Acres X Performance Points X Land Use Payment Rate

Performance Points are estimated by NRCS personnel using the Conservation Measurement Tool, a procedure used to estimate the level of environmental gain achieved through conservation activities.  In order to encourage further conservation land use payment rates are higher for additional activities than for existing conservation activities.

A Supplemental Payment, based on a set amount per acre, is also available for participants with cropland who adopt a conservation crop rotation.  Total CSP payments to any one person or legal entity cannot exceed $200,000 during any 5-year period.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

EQIP provides financial incentives and technical assistance to help farmers and landowners establish conservation practices and structures.  Sixty percent of EQIP funding is targeted to address environmental concerns arising from livestock and poultry production, though preventing soil erosion on cropland is also a program priority.


EQIP participants must be an agricultural producer and have legal control over the land for the entire contract period.  Land eligible for an EQIP contract includes land on which agricultural commodities or livestock are produced, grassland, rangeland and pasture land, and nonindustrial private forestland. Soil conservation structures eligible for cost-sharing include, but are not limited to, terraces, grassed waterways, filter strips, and contour grass strips.  Farmers can also receive incentive payments for the following land management practices that help reduce soil erosion:  no-till cultivation, conservation tillage, cover crops and residue management, conservation crop rotations, and grazing management.


Applications for EQIP can be submitted to local NRCS offices.  Producers submit an application with a plan of operations indicating the land that will be enrolled, the resource concerns that will be addressed, the practices that will be used, and a schedule for implementation.  NRCS personnel are available to assist in developing a plan of operations.


Funding of applications depends on environmental priorities set by local and state NRCS offices.  Ranking of individual farm applications is then based on these priorities.  Ranking criteria consider cost-effectiveness, resources to be treated, meeting national EQIP priorities, compliance with environmental regulations, reducing the need for future regulations, and the location of the contract.

Producer Duties

EQIP contracts range from one to ten years and use the application’s plan of operation to establish the practices required and the schedule for implementation.  The practices must meet NRCS technical standards and require maintenance for the service life of the conservation practice, which may be longer than the term of the EQIP contract.


Cost-share share funding is limited to 75 percent but is usually funded at approximately 50 percent.  Cost-share limitations are higher for beginning, limited-resource, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, who may receive up to 90 percent of the estimated cost for certain conservation practices.

The maximum payment a participant can receive is $300,000 for all EQIP contracts entered during any six year period.  However, if the NRCS Chief determines a project to have special environmental significance this limitation may be waived to a maximum of $450,00.  Limits for assistance with organic production are established at $20,000 per year and $80,000 for any six year period.

The Precarious Future of Soil Conservation Laws

Since enactment the SWCD soil loss limits have remained relatively static.  However, knowledge and enforcement of the limits are not widespread and many landowners, farmers, as well as district commissioners express a preference for voluntary incentive programs.

Compliance provisions requiring sustainable levels of soil erosion on HEL classified land have been credited with drastically reducing soil loss over the last 25 years.  However, monitoring and enforcement by NRCS staff faces the same budgetary restraints as voluntary conservation programs.  The NRCS has made an effort to address this through the use of less manpower intensive methods, such as aerial observation to locate non-compliant fields.  Compliance provisions also rely on farmers and landowners participating in government farm programs, particularly direct payments.  Members of Congress, as well farm organizations, have called for an end to direct subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill in favor of subsidized crop insurance, which does not have conservation compliance provisions attached.  Therefore, the future effectiveness of conservation compliance is uncertain.

Voluntary conservation programs depend heavily on state and federal funding.  The amount dedicated to these conservation programs fluctuates with government budgetary and political trends.  A policy often proposed to address the unstable nature of conservation funding is the creation of ecosystem markets that allow landowners and farmers to receive payments for environmental services.  Such a system is similar to the Conservation Stewardship Program discussed above, but rather than receiving payment from the government other businesses would pay farmers for stewardship practices that mitigate environmental degradation caused by the business, such as carbon emissions or water pollution.

Helpful Resources

Iowa NRCS – Conservation Programs for Iowa

Contact Your Local FSA, NRCS, and SWCD Office

The Farmers Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program