#UniteIowa ? Yeah, let’s get to work!

May 21, 2015

Iowa farmer, wetlandLast week Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson kicked off a #UniteIowa campaign, a documented crusade to find and encourage common ground between rural and urban Iowans.

He started with a trip to Orange City, to create dialogue between Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe (who’s suing three northwest Iowa counties for their alleged contributions to Des Moines’ water quality), Randy Feenstra (a rural state representative and a vocal opponent of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit), and northwest Iowans.

The arranged meeting produced a nice, cordial discussion.

Unfortunately, it didn’t create what rural and urban Iowans need most – meaningful action.

Yes, dialogue has the potential to spark action. But, as Munson acknowledges, Stowe is committed to suing his neighbors in northwest Iowa, so (realistically) sound bites were the only possible outcome.

And that’s a shame because there are lots of examples involving Iowa farmers, rural communities, cities, and local groups working together to make strides in improving water quality.

No doubt, #UniteIowa is a worthy cause. Roughly one in five Iowans are employed by agriculture, so Munson is correct in saying that rural and urban lives (and interests) are still closely intertwined.

The key is spotlighting and encouraging rural and urban Iowans who demonstrate, through their actions, that they share the mission to #UniteIowa .

Here are a few places to start:

1. Cedar Rapids

Leaders in Iowa’s second largest city, from the mayor to the city utilities director, are working together with farmers, landowners and other partners to install practices and pursue technologies to improve water quality in the area.

2. Rathbun Lake

Partnerships produce results. Just ask the residents of south central Iowa. Working together, farmers, land owners, and water treatment officials are protecting Rathbun Lake from 42,000 tons of sentiment and 179,000 lbs. of phosphorus annually.

3. Hewitt Creek

A group of 70 farmers and other participants in northeast Iowa have teamed up to protect the Hewitt Creek watershed for more than a decade. The results can be quantified by numbers (sampling is conducted monthly and after half-inch rainfails) and by wildlife activity (eagles have returned to fish in the stream).

4. Griswold

Meetings between city officials, farmers, and other nearby landowners produced a plan to use cover crops to protect the city’s municipal wells.

5. Sioux Center

Just a few short miles from Munson’s first stop on the #UniteIowa tour, farmer Matt Schuiteman and Dordt College have partnered on a variety in-field practices to help protect Sioux Center’s drinking water.

6. The 95 local governments and groups partnering on 16 watershed protection projects around Iowa

The divide between rural and urban Iowans (whether political, economic, cultural, or otherwise) has been well explored (and in many cases, embellished). While the Register points to the friction created by the Water Works lawsuit to demonstrate that the “gulf” between rural and urban is widening, the number of recently formed urban and rural partnerships to address clean water suggests that (at least in some ways) the gap is shrinking. Some Des Moines leaders may be experiencing problems working with their rural neighbors, but rural and urban stakeholders around the rest of the state are going about the business of addressing water quality together.

Learn more about ongoing rural and urban collaboration to protect Iowa’s water at www.conservationcountsiowa.com

A case of jumping too soon on a water report

May 20, 2015


When officials at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently released a report showing an increase in impaired waters in the state, environmental activists dove in head first.

Predictably, they claimed that the sky is falling. They pointed threatening fingers at agriculture. And they trashed the state’s ground-breaking water improvement strategy, even though it’s been endorsed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and copied by other states.

But perhaps they jumped in just a little too early.

As Rick Robinson, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy advisor, noted in a report, understanding what causes rivers and streams to be called “impaired” is a complex and subjective process. Impairments, which were up 15 percent over the last report, are not always a good indicator of water quality issues.

The increase in impaired streams comes primarily from additional monitoring, including monitoring for what’s called “indicator” bacteria in small, rural watersheds. And DNR says it’s getting more data now because people in those watersheds are stepping up to get better measurements, so they can work to improve the water.

It doesn’t mean that there are more impaired streams than before, the report really indicates that Iowa is doing a more thorough job of water quality monitoring, according to the DNR. And much of that, Robinson said, is because farmers and others in the watersheds are taking more readings to determine of what’s going on in the stream so they can figure out the best way to improve and protect water.

The list of impaired waterways also tends to grow rather than shrink because once a stream gets on the impaired list, it’s complicated to take it off no matter how much work is being done to improve water quality, Robinson said.

One of the primary ways to address the impairments is to gather farmers, landowners and others in a watershed to draft a watershed improvement plan called total maximum daily load (TMDL). There are 126 water bodies previously on the impaired waters list now that have approved TMDL watershed plans, and are eligible to be removed. The DNR is currently asking that 73 more be removed for a variety of reasons, such as new data or improvement plans in development.

Another complication with the list is that EPA standard for indicator bacteria has been set at levels designed for public swimming, even though beaches are rare to non-existent in most of these small, very rural watersheds. The DNR says it’s almost impossible for these watersheds to achieve the standard. But the agency is doing studies to apply a more appropriate standard.

It’s a slow process and it’s using precious limited state resources where they might be better used for higher priority watersheds and impairments.
In the end, it’s clear that the increase in impaired waters has almost nothing to do with dirtier water, as the activists claim. Instead, it’s caused by additional monitoring, the application of an inappropriate water quality standard and the fact that it’s hard to get waterways off the list once they are on.

The DNR’s impaired waters list, Robinson concludes, underscores the importance of targeted, effective solutions like Iowa’s water quality initiative, the EPA-endorsed Nutrient Reduction Strategy. As we continue to see around the state, more and more farmers are seeking solutions to reduce loss of fertilizer, save soil and improve water quality. In every farm meeting these days, conservation is at the top of the agenda.

It’s a lot more than talk; farmers are putting up real money to improve water quality.

Farmers, along with local co-ops, implement dealers and others, already combined more than $11.8 million in their own funding with more than $7.5 million in state money and are making progress. Research shows that nitrate levels in Iowa’s streams and rivers have stabilized — and slightly declined — in recent decades, as this Des Register article shows. 

Making long-term improvements in Iowa’s water quality will require a plan like the state’s water quality initiative that relies on collaboration, cooperation and investment, as well as research to find new and promising technologies. It won’t happen overnight and it’s clear that pointing fingers and jumping to conclusions without the facts, is only going to delay real progress.

For more information on what Iowa farmers are doing to improve water quality, click here. cc-logo1

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau’s news services manager.  



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