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Inaugural ideas conference taps water quality

Article cover photo
Roger Wolf, center, director of Environmental Programs and Services at the Iowa Soybean Association, participates in a panel discussion today about water quality at the Iowa Ideas Conference sponsored by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (Photo: Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer)

By Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer

Ideas to improve Iowa’s water quality flowed last week from experts charged with protecting and supplying one of the state’s most valuable resources.

Agriculture, water utility, government and environmental officials — including current and former Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) staff members — offered suggestions to curb nitrate, phosphorus and other water pollutants during two panel discussions Friday at the Iowa Ideas Conference in Cedar Rapids.

Roger Wolf, ISA Environmental Programs and Services director, participated in the first panel that focused on statewide policies and approaches to improve water quality like the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The second took a deep-dive into research and new ideas, which included a couple from Chris Jones, Ph.D., a former ISA research scientist now working for the University of Iowa as a research engineer with IIHR — Hydroscience & Engineering.

“My reflection is the two panels hit the state-of-the-state on water — the pulse of where it’s at,” Wolf said. “The progress of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was recognized and need to scale it up. Plus, recognizing the policy linkages to move it forward.”

The inaugural three-day event, sponsored by the Cedar Rapids Gazette, was a statewide gathering designed to mix panel discussions, interviews with leaders and thought-provoking experiences to help move complex issues forward.

Wolf said improving water quality and finding equitable solutions is as complex as it gets. Some ideas were new, others were not.

Panelists agreed curbing water pollution and protecting soil are imperative to Iowa’s future. But differences exist on how to achieve it.

“My big Iowa idea is building a sustainable water future for Iowa and beyond,” Wolf told more than 25 people attending the water quality sessions.

He contends the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and targeting conservation practices through a watershed approach is the way to do it.

The strategy, launched in May of 2013, is a science-based initiative to reduce nitrate and phosphorus loads in Iowa waterways and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent from point and nonpoint sources. Cities are working to update and improve sewage treatment plants and curb storm water discharges, while farmers are implementing conservation practices like no-till, cover crops, wetlands and bioreactors, among others.

ISA engagement

ISA’s action-orientated, data- driven approach speaks for itself when it comes to water quality, Wolf said. The association has invested about $50 million since 2001, about one-third being checkoff funds, to improve water quality and soil health. ISA leverages funds with state, federal and private grants to create and implement watershed plans and get practices on the ground. Farmers have spent millions on their own installing conservation practices.

Wolf said the strategy and voluntary efforts of farmers and landowners are working, but the problem is far from solved and the pace and scale of efforts need to increase. That takes collaboration and cooperation among rural and urban communities.

“We know the practices that work,” Wolf said. “You need local leadership owning the issue, which is beginning to emerge via watershed implementation efforts.”

Differing views

Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, bluntly said the strategy is a failure — a statement he’s repeated since its inception. The science associated with the plan isn’t the issue, he clarified, but its voluntary component.

Stowe said “industrial” agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of the state’s water pollution. He believes regulation, not voluntary measures outlined in the strategy, is the only way to curb nonpoint-source pollution.

The Des Moines Water Works attempted to do this through the courts. The utility sued Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties for allegedly allowing nitrates coming from 10 drainage districts they control to pollute the Raccoon River, a primary source water for the utility. The case was thrown out.

“Iowa is an embarrassment,” Stowe said, referring to the state’s actions to curb water pollution in the Mississippi River watershed. “If you believe volunteerism is the right way to go for public health, we will disagree. Water quality is a public health and public safety commodity.”

Nutrient reduction strategy progress

Gazette columnist Todd Dorman, who moderated the panels and authored several pieces on water quality, asked participants if the strategy and voluntary efforts are working.

“Have we moved the needle at all?” he questioned.

“Slightly,” answered Adam Schnieders, water quality resource coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Right now we’re getting more confidence in the metric systems to measure that.”

An annual report tracking strategy progress will be released soon, Schnieders said. Data shows a 1.2 percent improvement, which he called marginal.

“It takes decades of work … we were very clear it would take that long to get to the 45 percent goal,” Schneiders said. “We will need changes in farmer attitudes, new (waste water) plants, land use changes and more resources.”

Jones had two suggestions along those lines: Forgoing fall tillage and planting in flood plains. Both would cut down on erosion and runoff.

“It’s difficult for me to understand why these things continue,” Jones said. “If we would address these two things, I think a 10-20 percent reduction of nitrates to streams would occur.”

The former ISA research scientist added, “everyone wants to hear grand ideas to solve Iowa’s water issues, but the little ones can be just as effective.”

Success story

Wolf said there’s excellent examples of big ideas to improve water quality working now. The Middle Cedar Partnership Project is at the top of the list.

The project, which includes ISA and 14 other partners, has prioritized watersheds and is advancing implementation strategies based on local conditions. Local partners, including farmers, have targeted sub-watershed areas, assessed current practices and water conditions and identified solutions best suited for the landscape. The state’s nutrient reduction strategy goals and flood reduction efforts are part of the equation.

Local Middle Cedar partners have developed plans for practice implementation, including a timeline set by stakeholders, an estimate of the financial resources needed and steps to deploy monitoring and evaluation.

“This bottom-up action and top-down sponsorship approach enables smarter planning,” Wolf said. “It creates the business case to drive investment toward achieving new soil and water infrastructure for the future.”

The approach relies on local institutions asserting leadership and dedicated support of state, federal and private programs in the role of delivering sponsorship via grants and loans, he added.

Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids Water Utility Plant Manager, said working with farmers upstream benefits everyone.  The city is a lead partner.

“I think we’re seeing good result with practices going in,” Baloch said. “It’s promising to us.”

He said nitrate readings in the Cedar River, which influences the city’s ground water supply, Friday were 1.27 milligrams per liter (mg/L), far below the federal drinking water standard of 10 mg/L.

While good, he realizes nitrate levels could spike in the spring due to season weather trends.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Baloch said.

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com.

©2017 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.

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