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Ideas and inspiration abundant at the Iowa Water Conference

Article cover photo
Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance, opened the annual Iowa Water Conference held recently in Ames. She challenged the audience to lean into the complexity of water quality and embrace it. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

At last summer’s One Water Summit, McKnight Foundation President Kate Wolford said, “Soil health is the Trojan horse for water quality. The benefits of soil health for farmers leads to water quality improvement.”

The Iowa Water Conference, held last week in Ames, embodied this statement by including sessions and keynote talks that addressed both water quality and soil health. Opening keynote speaker Radhika Fox reinforced the concept.

“Water and land management have to be thought about together,” said Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance. “Thinking about water and land is a systems approach. We all should be thinking this way in our work.”

Fox told the nearly 500 attendees there’s so much to do to improve water quality, but progress is being made.

“We are at the tipping point on learning what works. We know the solutions. One Water is the transformation we need now,” Fox said.

The One Water concept, she explained, is a set of hallmarks:

  • The mindset that all water is valuable;
  • A focus on achieving multiple benefits;
  • A watershed scale of thinking and action;
  • A systems approach;
  • The right-sized solutions;
  • Inclusion and engagement of all.

“This is hard work: there is never enough money, there are policy challenges. It’s complex,” Fox said. “I encourage everyone here to lean into the complexity and embrace it.”

David Montgomery, the bookend to Fox’s opening address, spoke about soil health at the close of the event. A geomorphologist who has studied soil degradation and soil loss, Montgomery has written several books on the subject. His most recent book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life,” was also the title of his talk.

Montgomery painted an alarming picture of soil degradation across the globe.

“Erosion has played a role in the demise of ancient civilization. I came up with the villain: the plow. It has caused long-term degradation of soil, causing erosion faster than soil can replenish,” he said. “But you can go to any of these degraded regions in the world today and see farmers who are reversing this and doing it very quickly, but you have to look for them.”

He pointed out that farmers are building and preserving soil health by reducing or eliminating soil disturbance, using more ground cover like cover crops, and diversifying their crop rotations based on the land and region.

“It’s not a trade-off of farming and conservation,” Montgomery said. “It’s reducing inputs and increasing yield. These are not new ideas, but the goal is to build soil health.”

Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, presented the concept of watershed citizenship.

He believes the biggest issue for water quality is the lack of personal responsibility and asked the audience to think about what it means to be a good citizen. Hamilton cited the dimensions of citizenship — being accountable, informed, engaged, participating in the process, and understanding how law and society work — are the same in any community, including a watershed.

No matter the community, the basic principle remains. “We treat others how we want to be treated,” he said.

“How different might an Iowa water quality strategy look if we developed it based on the context of our legacy of conservation and on the ideals of watershed citizenship?” Hamilton asked.

Citizenship within a watershed, specifically at the HUC-12 scale, will go far, he said. Hamilton challenged the audience to become good watershed citizens by:

  • Being able to identify your HUC-12 watershed and drawing a rough map of it;
  • Learning where the water goes at least five miles from your land;
  • Knowing your Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) commissioners;
  • Being able to name one thing done to improve water within your watershed.

The 14th annual Iowa Water Conference, presented by the Iowa Water Center, included more than 45 topics over the two-day event. In addition to the featured speakers, breakout sessions were held with focused tracks including: healthy rivers and streams, documenting nutrient reduction, watershed-scale solutions for flood resiliency, prairie strips, and point source nutrient reduction. Discussions and workshops covered topics such as: telling your water story, engaging ag retailers, and success stories in Storm Lake, Ames, Des Moines and Muscatine.

Contact Carol Brown at

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