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4 things Iowans should know about protecting water

Water, clearly speaking infographic
We’ve seen this scenario before. A discouraged player points a finger at teammates, demands a trade, criticizes fans or calls for a new coach.

And while we, as fans, can certainly relate to the player’s frustration, we can’t see how giving up or creating division on the team will bring the team any closer to its goal.

Some are more about themselves. We’re witnessing the same destructive behavior on our Iowa team as the Des Moines Water Works threatens to sue three northwest Iowa counties for their alleged contributions to recent seasonal, weather-induced nitrate spikes in river water.

The tactic is equivalent to calling for your team’s coach to be fired after a couple games. It’s a blatant refusal to work together and participate in the solution.

It’s also very frustrating for farmers, businesses and communities, and government officials, who have embraced Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based plan to improve Iowa’s water that was first funded by the Iowa Legislature in 2013.

Rather than jump onboard – along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Des Moines Water Works has taken a stand that the strategy will never work because it relies on Iowans taking ownership of the problem (as opposed to being told what to do by new regulations).

We need more (not fewer) Iowans working together for a solutions to our water quality challenges. If you’re on the fence about joining or supporting the team that’s working together to improve Iowa’s water and soil quality, here are four things you should know:

1. Improvements are happening right now.

When Des Moines Water Works suggests that Iowa isn’t making progress, it’s ignoring what’s been going on in this state for decades.

According to data on the Des Moines Water Works website, the Raccoon River (which supplies drinking water to Des Moines) shows a statistically significant downward trend in nitrates since 2006 (as far back as their public data goes). Others – including the Iowa DNR – have confirmed steady to declining nitrate trends in Iowa, including the Raccoon River, since the mid to late-1990s.

Iowa State University reported in 2007 that seven major conservation practices used on Iowa farms have removed 28 percent of the nitrates, 38 percent of the nitrogen and 58 percent of the phosphorus that would otherwise be present in surface water.

Farmers have also reduced erosion by roughly 28 percent over the past few decades and have restored nearly 361,830 acres of wetlands (equivalent to 273,633 football fields).

The number of trout streams in the state that support reproduction are up eight fold from only five in the 1980s to more than 40 today, according to DNR.

2. Enthusiasm is skyrocketing.

Frankly, the results I just listed don’t even account for the awe-inspiring growth in enthusiasm for, and resources dedicated to, conservation since the start of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a year and half ago.

In 2014, Iowa farmers invested at least $13 million of their own money and leveraged $9.5 million in state soil and water conservation cost-share funding for more than $22 million in conservation structures and practices to improve water quality. The $22 million figure is a recent (and likely an all-time) record.

Farmers are investing those resources in terraces, cover crops, grassed waterways and more. In fact, according to one survey, roughly one-quarter of Iowa farms are utilizing cover crops (a practice that reduces runoff) today. That’s tremendous growth in a practice that was used sparingly a few years ago!

Governor Branstad’s budget includes $14.25 million for conservation cost share and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in fiscal year 2016 (up from $11.15 million in fiscal year 2015), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced it is awarding two Iowa conservation initiatives a total of $5.5 million in 2015. In contrast to Des Moines Water Works, the Cedar Rapids water utility received $2 million this week for the Middle Cedar Partnership Project. Its working with local conservation partners, farmers and landowners to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to help improve water quality and soil health in the Cedar River Watershed.

Iowa’s water quality challenges won’t disappear overnight, but the prescription for long-term success starts with the investments we’re making right now.

3. The team is committed, growing

The team working to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is growing.

Even EPA supports the strategy (let’s just say it; EPA and farmers don’t always see eye-to-eye) and has called Iowa a leading state in addressing water quality.

DNR and IDALS echo EPA’s enthusiasm, noting that 11 other Mississippi River basin states are using Iowa’s strategy as a model for their own water quality efforts.

It works because it’s inclusive – encouraging participation from farmers, businesses, private groups, cities, and other local government entities (such as soil and water conservation districts) – and because…

4. It’s based on science and technology.

If weather, soil types and topography had no impact on water quality, the answer to our problem would be simpler.

But our lakes, streams and rivers don’t exist in a vacuum.

Local variables contribute to local water quality, which in turn contributes to someone else’s water quality downstream.

You can ignore these facts and require more than 88,000 farmers to do the same thing, or you can explore a variety of solutions that are tailored to local communities and landscapes.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy does the latter. That’s why you see farmers planting cover crops, building terraces, planting grassed waterways and other grassy buffers, using technology to apply a precise amount of fertilizer, varying the number, timing and amount of fertilizer applications, and more.

If that sounds complicated, just remember that when it comes to a complex issue like water quality, it’s never just about one “player” or “play”. We need a whole team and a full playbook to get the job done.

By Rick Robinson. Rick is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Environmental Policy Advisor.