No matter where you live – rural or urban, on the prairie or along the hills, near a stream, lake or wetland – we all know the value of water. Conserving it, keeping it clean, using it and enjoying it.

In some urban settings as much as fifty-five percent of rain water becomes surface run off which carries sediments and unseen pollutants. (1) To contain and filter those run away waters rain gardens, low impact development practices and porous pavement systems and other innovations are in use here in Dickinson County. The Dickinson County Water Quality Commission, urban conservationists and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship educated the public early on in the advantages of these practices. And they were on hand to help engineers, lakes association members and all interested residents in putting them into practice. (2)

In rural settings there is cooperation as well. Roger Wolf, Director of Environmental Programs and Services at the Iowa Soybean Association says, “Farmers are already embracing wetlands, along with bioreactors, conservation tillage and other practices to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering watersheds.” (3) His association has employed twenty woodchip bioreactors on tile drainage systems to test their effectiveness. They are working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Dave White, former chief of the National Resources Conservation Program and now president of Ecosystem Services Exchange, believes, “The fate of the environment really is going to depend on the quality of the decisions that the men and women who own and operate the land make every day.” (4)

Sean McMahon, Nature Conservancy North America Agricultural Program Director, believes that it is not good enough to manage water “just at the farm or edge-of-the-field” scale. He states that random successes are fine, but it will take entire watersheds acting together to make an improvement in water quality. (5)

Let’s leave the Midwest for just a bit and journey down the Mississippi River to the Hypoxic Zone, also called the Dead Zone, where the dissolved oxygen is the water has decreased to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force was established in 1997. In 2008 twelve states along the Mississippi were urged to develop their own plans for nutrient reduction. In August of 2014 the Dead Zone measured 5,052 square miles – about the size of Connecticut. (6)

In Iowa the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Department of Natural Resources and ISU College of Agriculture and Life Science developed a scientific and ever-evolving plan On the Iowa Nutrient Reduction website a video presentation by Matt Helmers, Extension Agriculture engineer at ISU, details, compares and critiques specific practices and combinations of practices for reducing nutrient load in our state. It is an impressive body of knowledge. It also shows what a challenge this is at present and will be in the future. The video and the entire site is well worth exploring. (7)

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) “A Threat Unmet” Iowa Policy is at the center of much discussion. Supporters of the strategy say it will work, but needs more time. Others feel that there are faults in the plan. For a further discussion of this the Iowa Policy Project is a good place to start. This 2014 article by David Osterberg, a former state representative and specialist in research on environmental and energy issues, and Aaron Kline, who received his Master’s Degree from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa, suggests six improvements to make a voluntary system better. (8)

In 2015 David Osterberg elaborates on one of the improvements. That is the “Choose 2” concept which mandates that every producer, farm owner or renter, adopt two runoff reducing steps. The key here is to let the farmer choose. For the many farmers who already have taken steps for reduce nutrient runoff, they will just be able to continue their practices. Osterberg points out that this keeps a voluntary component to a solution. (9)

Perhaps 2015 will turn out to be the year that cooperation and collaboration reign to solve the complicated issue of water conservation and water purity. Both urban and rural settings in Iowa have shown that much can be accomplished when there is partnership in standard setting, scientific research, implementation, quality control and outcome reporting. It is time to give it a try.

Urban Conservation Practices, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University (extension.iastate.edu/ilf)
“Taking the Future by Storm”, Mary Gottschalk, The Iowan, July/August 2014
“Urban wetlands trap pollution in cities and towns,” Danielle Eller, Des Moines Register, November 1, 2013
“Water – Under the Microscope” Marilyn L. Cummins, American Soy, Summer 2014, Vol. 2 No. 1
“Water –Under the Microscope”
Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy website
“A Threat Unmet.” David Osterberg and Aaron Kline, The Iowa Policy Project, July 17, 2014
“Iowa Should ‘Choose 2’ to reduce water pollution” David Osterberg, thegazette.com/subject/opinion/quest-columnists