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Farmer Research Tour wraps up in Cedar Rapids

Article cover photo
Cedar Rapids Utilities Director Steve Hershner was the keynote speaker at the final stop of the 2019 ISA Farmer Research Tour. He shared with attendees how the City is working with farmers and landowners upstream to improve water quality for rural and urban residents. (Photo: Carol Brown/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

The Cedar Rapids Utilities Department goes to great lengths to maintain a high quality of drinking water for their customers while keeping rates competitive. To accomplish this, the department is taking a collaborative approach, working alongside upstream rural residents, rather than a litigative approach seen in other cities.

Utilities Director Steve Hershner was the keynote speaker at the final stop of the Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) 2019 Farmer Research Tour in Cedar Rapids. He described to the small but engaged audience how the utility is keeping their water supply clean and available for their customers.

“The city serves 180,000 people, but because of our industries, it’s more like serving the wastewater treatment equivalent of 1.5 to 2 million people,” said Hershner. “For potable water, we have the capacity to treat 60 million gallons per day. Typical water usage is between 38 and 44 million gallons per day.”

Many Cedar Rapids industries are ag-centric: Cargill, General Mills, and Archer Daniels Midland to name a few. The industries collectively process more than 100,000 bushels of soybeans and 1.4 million bushels of corn every day. The City is keenly aware of its relationship with agriculture and resident industries. Hershner didn’t name names but stated that one company has an annual water bill approaching $6 million.

Hershner and staff are setting a positive example for other municipalities to creatively meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) goals for point-source reductions of “at least two-thirds in the amount of nitrogen and a three-fourths reduction in the amount of phosphorus from levels currently discharged by these facilities” as the strategy document states. For Cedar Rapids, these reduction goals translate to 66 percent total nitrogen and 45 percent total phosphorus. The utility also contributes to INRS non-point source goals by partnering with farmers and landowners upstream from Cedar Rapids.

“We are approaching our work on a watershed scale, looking at how to do things differently,” he said.

The City of Cedar Rapids is a lead partner on the Middle Cedar Partnership Project (MCPP), a $4.3 million water improvement project in five HUC-12 (Hydrologic Unit Code) watersheds covering 135,000 acres. Cedar Rapids sits at the base of the Middle Cedar watershed.

Through the project, the City leverages funds to help pay farmers and landowners for the installation bioreactors, saturated buffers, and adoption of practices like cover crops and nitrogen management. All these contribute to the non-point source reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus. Hershner said ISA’s assistance has been invaluable in navigating the MCPP journey.

Because the City and other partners are helping to pay for nutrient-reducing practices upstream, improved source water could arrive in Cedar Rapids. All of these efforts may help reduce operational costs, but more importantly, they ensure the City distributes water containing nitrate concentrations below maximum contaminant levels.

“Cedar Rapids has been a great help with the planning efforts for the Iowa Watershed Approach project,” said Adam Rodenberg. “The City has provided water monitoring data and results, which offer a snapshot of water quality throughout the entire Middle Cedar Watershed.” He is the project coordinator for the Middle Cedar watershed as part of the Iowa Watershed Approach project.

The results have sparked discussions with stakeholders across the watershed on developing a long-term water monitoring program, Rodenberg said.

Cedar Rapids also is working inside city limits, building levees and pumping stations to avoid another catastrophe like the major flood of 2008. Through innovative funding programs, local businesses and residents are installing permeable pavements, bioswales and bioretention cells, all of which help with stormwater management.

The 2019 ISA Farmer Research Tour concluded in Cedar Rapids after stops in Storm Lake and Ames the week before. The keynote speaker in Storm Lake was Erin Hodgson, an Iowa State University extension entomologist, who provided details on the soybean gall midge. Dan Freiberg, the featured speaker in Ames, spoke about farm data and how his company uses it. Attendees heard from commodity advisor Al Kluis at each venue as well as the research teams of Environmental Programs and Services, Analytics and the On-Farm Network®, which presented summaries of projects and on-farm trials conducted in 2018.

Contact Carol Brown at

For media inquiries, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

©2018 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.