Is the water in Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams as good as it used to be? Critics often tell the public that the quality of the state’s surface water has never been worse and that government mandates are needed to force improvements. But that’s not the view of one expert who has spent decades monitoring the quality of Iowa’s surface water. Dean Lemke of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, says that quality of the water in our state’s rivers, lakes and streams is actually better than it was a decades ago when he started at the department, and maybe better than it’s been since the early days of European settlement in the Hawkeye State.

One of the biggest reasons our water quality is better, Lemke said at a recent environmental meeting, is that more and more Iowa farmers are taking action to make it better. They are switching to farming practices that reduce soil erosion. They are planting grassy strips on stream banks to catch sediment before it reaches the streams. And they are restoring wetlands that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels. Indeed, Iowans lead the nation in adopting these practices and more want to. The state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement program which helps farmers establish wetlands to improve water quality, is continually oversubscribed with farmers who want to participate.

Some Iowa farmers are looking for new ways to protect the state’s water while growing more of the food the world needs. One good example is Matt Schuiteman of Sioux Center. He’s working with Dordt College environment studies professor Robb De Haan to test various cropping systems on land he farms near wells that provide a portion of Sioux Center’s drinking water. They hope to determine which rotation works best to reduce nitrogen levels in water wells while still providing income for farmers. Their project, supported by a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, should be valuable to rural communities all over Iowa and the Midwest which draw drinking water from shallow wells. No government mandate forced Schuiteman to take the initiative. He cares about his community’s water and wanted to research ways to protect it.

Half-way across the state, near Webster City, the Iowa Soybean Association Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance and the Sand County Foundation, recently installed a device called a bioreactor on the farm of Arlo Van Diest. Preliminary research has shown that bioreactors, which are basically trenches filled with wood chips, can significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing out of farm tile lines. When offered the chance to test the project on his farm, Van Diest was more than willing to join in. He and his long-time farming partner John Larson, have always looked for ways to improve water quality and the bioreactor technology looks like a promising way to do that. Once again, there was no government mandate. Instead, the farmers were interested in finding new ways to protect water quality.

Experts, like Lemke, are very encouraged by these kinds of efforts by farmers to find new ways to continually improve water quality. “It’s important to recognize how far we’ve come with water quality and it’s exciting to see where we are going,” he said.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the News Services Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.