The quality of Iowa’s water deserves greater attention. The safety and purity of water affects everyone, whether the water is in a rural well, a municipal treatment system or in a lake or river.
Growing public pressure will motivate the Iowa Legislature to take action. What that action is and how it is enforced varies greatly, depending on your political persuasion.
It is hardly news that production agriculture is responsible for the vast majority of sediment, fertilizers and herbicides that find their way into our water supply.
In the past, this was regarded primarily as a cost of doing business, but now we know better. The intensity of row crop production in North Iowa has resulted in large amounts of fertilizers and other inputs applied to the land along with too much tillage and not enough crop diversity.
As a result of nitrate monitoring by the University of Iowa across the state in streams and rivers, it is calculated that 41 percent of the soluble nitrate in the Mississippi River that reaches the Gulf of Mexico and causes the ever expanding “dead zone” originates in Iowa.
The majority of that percentage comes from the prime farmland here in the north central part of our state. There are many things farmers here could do to reduce the loss of the three things that cause the majority of the problems with water quality: soil, nitrates and phosphorus.
The best management practices for farms in our area for water quality improvement may vary slightly, but all include reducing tillage, delaying nitrogen applications until the crop needs it, planting cover crops, applying fertilizer based on a soil nutrient test, and functioning grass waterways.
Since its inception in the late 1930s as a result of the dust bowl era, the Natural Resources and Conservation Service educates and assists farmers to implement just these kind of conservation improvements. There are trained professional conservation technicians located in every county at the Soil and Water Conservation District offices: yet these offices struggle for funding and staffing.
Over the past five years, there have been 16 Watershed Management Authorities formed in Iowa. Organized by interested citizens, these are legally recognized multi-jurisdictional organizations that involve cities, counties and SWCDs that are in a specific river or section of a river’s watershed.
Originally formed to primarily address flooding issues within the watershed, the focus of WMAs has expanded with the realization that practices designed to hold water back on the landscape greatly reduce the amount of soil and fertilizer carried out of the watershed. Because of their effectiveness in addressing local water issues, several WMAs have attracted new federal and private funding.
As the public pressure to improve the quality of the state’s water mounts, there have been many ideas put forward as potential legislative solutions. The Iowa Senate bill that is currently under debate does not target our worst problem areas, establish any watershed governance, set any goals, or begin until 2021.
It is the hope of many involved in conservation work that any new initiatives set specific measurable goals with timetables, and work with and through people who understand the problems at our existing system of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (located in each county), the NRCS, the WMAs and the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
Dennis Carner is a Cerro Gordo SWCD commissioner, along with Scott Kennedy, Kenneth Nelson, Lois Nieman, and William David Hansen. Assistant commissioners are Mary Everhart and Denise Nelson. The local office can be found at 1415 S. Monroe, Mason City.