The water utilities of Iowa’s two largest cities do exactly the same thing: They provide clean and safe water to their customers. But when it comes to dealing with agriculture, the backbone of the state’s economy, the attitudes of the water utilities in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids couldn’t be more different.

The Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), which supplies water to Iowa’s capital city and many surrounding communities, has clearly set itself up as an opponent of farmers and today’s agriculture. It launched a high-profile lawsuit against farm drainage districts in northwest Iowa over nitrates in the Raccoon River, where it draws much of its water.

And DMWW CEO Bill Stowe never misses a chance in public or the media to blame farmers and criticize the state’s collaborative water quality initiative, officially known as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

In the past year or so, I’ve attended several meetings where Stowe has outlined DMWW’s strategy. He’s very upfront about his opinion that the state’s water quality initiative, a science-based collaborative effort launched three years ago, is doomed to fail. And Stowe is clear that he’s for saddling farmers with increased government regulations.

Breath of fresh air

So it was like a breath of fresh air last week when I heard Cedar Rapids officials as they outlined their strategies to a group of Illinois farmers who had traveled west to learn about Iowa’s water quality efforts. Instead of slamming agriculture, the Cedar Rapids officials detailed their efforts to work with farmers upstream in the Cedar River watershed.

"We entered this program with the idea that we could work with farmers and farm organizations, like the Iowa Farm Bureau," said Tariq Baloch, the city’s water utility plant manager. "That’s the attitude and mind-set we have."

Baloch, who met with the Illinois farmers along with Cedar Rapids Utility Director Steve Hershner and Mayor Ron Corbett, said the city hopes the collaboration will lead to long-term improvements in the quality of water it draws from wells along the Cedar River. It wants to help farmers adopt practices, like cover crops, bioreactors, wetlands and saturated buffers, that are part of Iowa’s water quality initiative and have shown to improve water quality.

One goal of Cedar Rapids’ efforts is to avoid having to build an expensive nitrate removal plant, Baloch said. In addition, he said, the city hopes that the conservation measures will reduce the potential for floods, like the disastrous flood of 2008.

Middle Cedar project

The keystone of that cooperation is Cedar Rapids’ participation in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project (MCPP). The project is a collaboration between Cedar Rapids, upstream conservation groups and, very importantly, farmers.

Instead of starting from scratch, Cedar Rapids is working to en­­hance two existing conservation demonstration projects upstream from the city. Those projects, the Benton-Tama Nutrient Reduction Demonstration project and the Miller Creek Water Quality Ini­tiative, are part of a number of demonstration projects in key watersheds around the state.

Backed by state and private funds and managed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the projects are designed to demonstrate how farmers can implement water quality practices in real-world conditions.

That way, farmers can use that knowledge to choose the practices that best work on their land and in their operations.

Cedar Rapids’ cooperative ap­­proach to water quality has gained fans around the state and around the country, including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In early 2014, the Middle Cedar project was awarded $2 million through a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. In addition, Cedar Rap­ids and 15 other partners are contributing $2.3 million in technical and financial assistance to the project.

Focused on five high priority watersheds in the Cedar River valley, the MCPP is designed to prioritize conservation practices that will have the greatest benefit. It’s also designed to collaborate with state and federal conservation agencies, farm groups and others to provide farmers financial and technical assistance to implement those practices and then measure the results.

Tough to compare

Baloch and other Cedar Rapids officials cautioned the Illinois visitors against making comparisons between their approach to improving water quality and the approach of the DMWW. The two water systems of Iowa’s top two cities draw water from different types of sources and have to work through their own set of issues as they work to meet their customers’ needs, they said.

Still, the Cedar Rapids officials are happy with their plan to collaborate with area farmers, conservation agencies, farm groups and others. "We just think that it makes sense to work together with farmers and address the issue by working together upstream," Baloch said.

Title Photo Caption: Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids' water utility plant manager (left) participated in a recent field day demonstrating eastern Iowa farmers' conservation efforts to a group of Illinois farmers.