Sitting in a conference room in downtown Des Moines, Delaware County farmer Kevin Glanz was inspired after hearing how city leaders in Cedar Rapids — unlike those in Iowa’s capital city — are working with farmers to solve water quality challenges.

Glanz rose from his seat at the Ag-Urban Partner Symposium at the Iowa Events Center last month and thanked the Cedar Rapids officials for leading conservation projects in the Middle Cedar watershed that seek to improve water quality while maintaining farm productivity.

"I farm upstream from Cedar Rapids. To hear them come out with a program working with farmers really is a stark contrast to Des Moines Water Works," he said. "As a farmer, I appreciate it. Where one is looking for winners and losers, farmers are always looking for solutions. We’re problem solvers. Give us a chance."

Positive results

The city of Cedar Rapids has seen positive results by working with farmers and landowners in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which focuses on increasing nutrient and flood reduction practices in targeted areas of the Middle Cedar watershed, a 2,417 square mile watershed that is part of the larger Cedar River watershed. Cedar Rapids draws its drinking water from shallow wells along the Cedar River.

The Des Moines Water Works, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties that has caused divisiveness between the city and farmers.

"I think we recognize the challenge that we have to do something," said Glanz, a Delaware County Farm Bureau member. "But to be leveled with a lawsuit ... they don’t want answers. They want more regulation."

Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utilities director, said it makes sense to work with farmers given the importance of agriculture to the region’s economy.

"We had to understand the needs of farmers," he said. "None of it will work if farmers aren’t financially successful."

Early results show that bioreactors are contributing to a 29 percent reduction in nitrates, said Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids water utility plant manager. Cover crops are contributing to a 53 percent reduction.

"So, these practices do work," he said. "Without farmers, producers and landowners, we would not be achieving any kind of success with this project."

Doing more

Glanz, who utilizes no-till and cover crops on his farm, said he tries to incorporate more conservation practices every year and encourages other farmers to do the same in order to make Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy successful.

"If you’re doing nothing, you should be doing something; and if you’re doing something, you should do more," he said. "The state and nation will be watching the outcomes."

Landowners should share in the cost of conservation practices that have long-term soil health benefits, according to Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company land brokerage and co-chair of a Des Moines-based soil and water quality task force. Nearly 60 percent of Iowa’s 30 million acres of farmland are rented.

"We think the landowner has a huge role to play in sustainability and water quality," he said. "They have the most to gain and the most to lose."

Narrow profit margins make it difficult for farmers to implement conservation practices on rented ground, Glanz noted.

"If landlords would lower the rent, we could incorporate a lot more ideas," he said. "It’s got to be economically defensible for farmers."

Public financing can also help farmers install water quality practices that don’t have a yield benefit or take land out of production, such as buffer strips, added Larry James, a Des Moines lawyer and co-chair of the Iowa Soil and Water Future task force with Bruere. Initial costs to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy are estimated at $1.2 billion to $4 billion.

"We think edge-of-field practices should not be a farmer’s responsibility," said James. "There’s no economic incentive for edge-of-field practices."

James said he believes it’s possible to solve Iowa’s water quality challenges without a lawsuit that forces more regulations and costs on farmers.

"I’m a pragmatist. I want to work things out before we go to court," he said. "We want to work with you to solve the problem rather than through the courts."