Continuous water quality im­­provement in Iowa will require time, a lot of hard work, research investments and, above all, strong collaborations between farmers and communities, a panel of farmers and city officials said last week during a seminar to explore grassroots partnerships at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Des Moines.

"We really feel that a cooperative, collaborative approach is the way to go," said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. "It’s really the only way that we are going to see progress in this area."

Cedar Rapids recently launched a collaborative project called the Middle Cedar Partnership. Working with farmers, government conservation agencies, a leading seed company and others, the project is designed to research a range of practices, such as cover crops, wetlands and bioreactors, which have shown to improve water quality and help mitigate flooding potential.

Tailored to the farm

The key, Corbett said, is finding out what works best for each farmer and each field. "As government, we often try to standardize things. But that doesn’t work in water quality because what works on one farm may not work on another one," he said. "That’s why we are having the demonstration projects, so farmers can see what can work on their farms."

Jennifer Fencl, a watershed management coordinator, agreed that it’s important to bring in a wide range of groups into the water quality collaborations. Many agribusiness, such as grain processors and equipment manufacturers, have expressed interest in contributing to the water quality collaborations, she said.

Requires hard work, time

Curt Zingula, Linn County Farm Bureau member, emphasized that improving Iowa’s water quality is going to require a lot of hard work from farmers and others and won’t happen quickly. "I think the take home message is water quality improvement is not an overnight, not a one week or one month thing," he said. "It’s just going to take a long time to get it all figured out."

Zingula, working through the Indian Creek watershed management project, is planting cover crops and installing saturated buffers on two sides of a field to determine which does a better job of reducing nutrient loss. He encouraged other farmers to also be proactive in trying practices and working to build partnerships with their local communities, working with organizations like Farm Bureau and others to find ways to improve water quality.

"If farmers are not proactive now, we’ve all got to worry about getting hit with an environmental lawsuit," Zingula said. "Then we’ll be cutting through red tape, dealing with all kinds of the regulations and hurdles and spending money for permits."

John Airy, also a Linn County Farm Bureau member, agreed it was important that farmers and others in agriculture step up for water quality and to let non-farmers know what they are doing. "We need to keep the conversations with people simple and not bury them in jargon," Airy said. "And we need to show them all the things that farmers are doing and why it’s so important to us."