Drainage Contractor

From the ADMC: Working to improve practice delivery

November 3, 2021  By Keegan Kult, executive director, Agricultural Drainage

The success of the Polk County Saturated Buffer project has shown that there is potential to deliver edge-of-field conservation practices at a scale and pace significant enough to have an impact on water quality by improving upon traditional practice delivery methods. The pilot project has increased the number of bioreactors and saturated buffers installed in Iowa to 166 from 115. and did so in a cost-effective manner. The use of a fiscal agent to group sites into larger bid packages removed landowner burdens, attracted quality contractors and saved money.

The idea behind the project was to accelerate adoption of saturated buffers and bioreactors by addressing as many barriers to adoption as possible while working in the confines of existing financial and technical assistance programs. The project team, consisting of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Polk County, and the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), developed a framework that reimagined the delivery model of these two practices and resulted in the overwhelming success. The team realized that to be successful the barriers to adoption of all stakeholders needed to be addressed not just those of the landowners. Previous projects had focused on landowner barriers but did not consider the difficulties that stakeholders like technical service providers, conservation agencies, and the drainage contractors faced. 

The team theorized that they could develop economies of scale by putting in place a framework that would generate interest from landowners. THis helped us overcome barriers for service providers and agencies by being able to justify dedicating resources to the project. The team also made use of a fiscal agent. The agent was a central hub that had agreements in place with the landowners, funding agencies and contractors. The fiscal agent was then able to incentivize landowners to participate by offering a temporary construction easement payment. The temporary construction easement allowed a contractor managed by the public fiscal agent to access the private property for practice construction. Not only did the landowner receive a small incentive payment, but the agent also removed the obligation of the landowner to hire and pay a contractor while awaiting reimbursement. Historically saturated buffers only cost about $3,000 to $5,000 to install. Taking time for these smaller projects often came at an opportunity cost to the contractor or at the very least the project was not high on the priority list while larger jobs were available. Previous projects had seen interest from landowners, only to be delayed trying to get on a contractor’s busy construction schedule. 

The results of the project were that a total of 51 practices, which is by far the largest grouping of saturated buffers and bioreactors nationwide, were installed in the summer of 2021. The sites were divided into three bid packages, with a single contractor winning all three bids. This way, it was worthwhile for the contractor to begin work shortly after finalizing the bids, instead of waiting to fit construction in between projects.  


Moving forward, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is looking to recreate the efforts as a Polk County 2.0 project is looking to install upwards of 100 sites in 2022. IDALS is looking to utilize the fiscal agent model in other pockets of the state as well. ADMC believes the Polk County Project followed by Polk County 2.0 will provide proof of concept that this framework and fiscal agent model can be replicated and will work in places besides Iowa to deliver conservation drainage at scale. Structural conservation drainage practices can deliver consistent benefits for timeframes of a decade plus. By showing scaled-up implementation in a cost effective, timely fashion is possible, more funding sources and investors will come to the table. ADMC is excited for the expansion of the model and the role that drainage contractors will play in delivering cost effective solutions. For more information about the Polk County Project and its framework, contact Keegan Kult at kkult@admcoalition.com. DC

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