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Upstream-downstream benefits when it comes to water quality focus

Article cover photo
Panelists discuss the upstream-downstream benefits of collaboration between rural and urban residents at an exchange on July 19. Panelists include: Dave Coppess, Heartland Co-op; Thomas Fawcett, Heartland Co-op; Jonathan Gano, Des Moines Public Works director; John Swanson, watershed coordinator, Polk Soil and Water Conservation District. (Photo: Carol Brown/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

A focus on soil health and water quality upstream benefits municipalities and those living downstream. Both upstream and downstream inhabitants benefit when working collaboratively.

Last week, Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance (ACWA), Capital Crossroads, Heartland Co-op and Polk Soil and Water Conservation District hosted an exchange between ag and city leadership. The event was a conversation about how farmers and their urban counterparts can work together to improve water quality.

Jonathan Gano, Public Works director for the City of Des Moines, has seen how urban-rural partnerships can be mutually beneficial. He worked for the public works department in Springfield, Missouri, before starting as the public works director in Des Moines four years ago. In Missouri, he watched asthe city and state worked to negate costly fines and comply with Clean Water Act standards.

“By working creatively with stakeholders in the region, we adopted a solution that ended up turning what formerly had been an enormously contentious relationship between the metro and the state of Missouri into a very, very amicable, friendly relationship,” Gano said.

Engaging partners

The process meant engaging a variety of partners, including farmers.

“A strictly bacteria-focused compliance effort meant reaching beyond jurisdictional boundaries of the city. I spent the better part of a decade working with farmers and landowners to keep cattle out of streams,” Gano said.

Pooling resources with other partners and engaging landowners outside of city boundaries not only saved the city and its residents money, but also shined a spotlight on Springfield.

“The city became an example for a comprehensive, holistic, integrated plan that … solved the biggest problems,” Gano said.

That similar approach — engaging stakeholders both in and outside of city limits — is growing here, said John Swanson, watershed coordinator for the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District.

He’s working with both cities and landowners upstream to solve water quality challenges.

“To improve water quality, to reduce flooding takes going out in the field and putting practices on the ground. Urban and ag partners — how we connect those dots is something we’ve been trying to do for years,” Swanson said.

Helping cities to think differently, he works to create new design criteria for urban development. He’s also helping to identify places where regional water retention basins could provide potential benefits downstream.

“We can’t build these basins everywhere. Also, we don’t want to flood crop ground or take away good development ground. That does not tie the local interest of the landowners with the goals of the watershed,” Swanson said.

Bridging goals

Farmers and landowners are interested in improving soil and water quality, said Tom Hauschel CEO of Heartland Co-op.

“The most important thing for me as a farm boy is maintaining the soil on the ground for my grandkids. Being a seventh-generation landowner, you want to keep the topsoil there because that’s the most precious and the most valuable thing we have for our families,” said Hauschel.

That’s where his goals align with the City of Des Moines, Gano explained.

“We want the same thing,” Gano said. “I want Tom’s soil to be super healthy for future generations because then it is also serving water quality improvement, water quantity reduction for the properties I’m charged with protecting. I think we’re heading in that direction.”

How to measure

Thomas Fawcett, precision ag field manager at Heartland Co-op, said the challenge is measuring sustainability and the practices that farmers are doing upstream.

“The challenge is how we, as an ag community — farmers and retailers — start to use information to benchmark where we are on the farm and look for opportunities to adopt and change. And then we look at the economics of those changes,” Fawcett said.

A second part of the challenge is communicating those challenges.

“How do we actually communicate what we’re doing to the public who oftentimes is making assumptions and coming to conclusions based on information that probably isn’t what’s actually happening?”

Fawcett said tools like Land-O-Lakes’ Truterra™ Insights Engine is showing promise on helping to resolve both of those challenges. TruTerra is an interactive on-farm digital platform that helps farmers establish and further their stewardship goals based on real-time, acre-by-acre information. Ag retailers and food companies are both interested in the program as it provides an insight to sustainability practices, Fawcett noted.

Contact Bethany Baratta at


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