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Looking beyond the surface to fully understand Iowa’s water quality

Looking beyond the surface to fully understand Iowa’s water quality
The recent flooding around the state is a reminder of the importance of water quality to all of us, whether you live in the heart of a city or call rural Iowa home.  Our families like to fish, swim, and play in the water during the warm summer and fall months, and we all depend on waterways for safe drinking water.

When the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently released their bi-annual Water Quality Assessment and we saw a higher number of impaired waterways, the immediate reaction is concern about regression in our water quality challenge.  However, once you look beyond the surface of the water report to understand the process, a much different conclusion is made.

Although the 2014 list from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) includes more impaired waters than two years ago, according to the DNR,  that does not necessarily mean that water quality is worse in Iowa.  It means improved monitoring captured more waterways and more data was collected than ever before. The DNR also says the number may also reflect a naturally occurring bacteria, which still indicates impairment, but the natural phenomena is not caused by humans.

John Olson, the DNR’s specialist on water quality assessments and author of Understanding Iowa’s Impaired Waters (2015), wrote, “The majority of impairments in Iowa waters are minor to moderate. Iowa’s water quality standards are designed to alert us to a potential problem before serious pollution problems begin.  For the most part, when a water is impaired, it tells us that we, as Iowans, need to act before those problems become severe.”

Rather than reaching the inaccurate conclusion that we aren’t making progress in water quality, a deeper look at the data tells a much different story.  Iowans can proudly say that due to collaborative efforts around the state and the dedication of many farmers, 73 waterbodies were removed from the 2012 impaired list.

Just as our offices, schools, and homes have implemented new technology, farmers embrace technology to improve conservation plans on their farms, and municipalities look for more efficient ways to treat water; the collaboration has been successful.  The DNR has also added new technology which has expanded water testing and tells us more than ever before.  The DNR reported that additions to the impairment list were generally because water monitoring and biological data weren’t available in prior years, not that water quality is declining in Iowa.

Iowa’s water quality challenges didn’t develop overnight, so it makes sense that measurable improvement won’t happen overnight either.  But better testing, means better information, so we should strive to learn how we all impact our watershed, whether we grow crops, wash the car in the driveway, fertilize our lawns, or simply like to paddle down the river on a hot, summer day; it’s time to ‘dive deep’ and realize we’re all in this, together.

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is public relations coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.