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SOIL 2021: Iowa’s water quality is an “us problem”

Photo courtesy of USGS

They came from many walks of life. Farmers, professors, government employees, scientists, faith leaders and students of all majors, brought together by a common goal: improving soil and water quality in Iowa. They gathered at Drake University for the fifth annual SOIL 2021 conference on Nov. 17 to address the challenges Iowa’s water quality faces.

SOIL stands for “sustaining our Iowa land,” but the conference encompassed much more. It bounced from passionate speeches about environmental regulation to the intricacies of carbon capture, and at its heart were the people of Iowa.

“We have to make sure that we don’t look at this as just an agriculture or farming issue, a problem that needs to be solved,” said Jennifer Zwagerman, director of Drake’s agricultural law center. “It’s an us problem.”

Battered, beaten and bruised

Iowa’s position as an agricultural powerhouse has battered its water systems for nearly 200 years. Excess nutrients and pesticides pollute everything from the Des Moines River to backyard streams, destabilizing ecosystems and threatening drinking water sources.

Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa, has been waders-deep in Iowa rivers for decades. He specializes in water quality and monitoring and has seen the degradation of Iowa’s water firsthand. 

“You may have heard Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County described as ‘pristine’ in the news media in recent months,” Jones said. “Here’s what qualifies as pristine in Iowa: E. coli levels at 1,400 colonies per hundred milliliters six times the recreational standard and an average nitrate concentration of seven milligrams per liter, which is higher than even the Racoon River.” 

Despite these challenges, Jones argues that regulation can work and has in the past. The 1985 Food Security Act introduced conservation compliance, which requires farmers on highly erodible ground to develop conservation systems and prohibits planting on converted wetlands. Farmers must adhere to the guidelines to participate in federal programs.

“We saw almost instantaneous improvement in the clarity of Iowa streams,” Jones said. “Yet, we have to get gaslighted about how regulation won’t work. It can work.”

The passing of the $50 million Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond in late October suggests a changing tide in Iowa. The bond had 72 percent approval and will protect drinking water sources, help prevent flooding and improve the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams.

Zwagerman said the passing of the bill gave her hope. “There is still a large part of our population, at least here in Polk County, that voted, that recognizes the value in that city and our natural resources.”

Iowa’s soil and water issues are mostly derived from agriculture

Understanding the connections between soil, water and people is the first step towards conserving Iowa’s natural resources. Humanity depends on agriculture for food, fuel and other commodities. Because of this, agriculture is one primary way land and water resources are depleted.

“The bottom line is that we have to have the desire to consider waters as a resource to be properly managed for food security,” said Jerry Hatfield, former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. 

Many traditional agricultural practices diminish soil and water quality across Iowa. Tilling soil disrupts its natural structure, accelerating the erosion process and increasing runoff. Planting a single crop year-round depletes soil nutrients and leads to overapplication of fertilizers, which end up in the water systems. 

Agriculture relies on chemical fertilizers to provide crops with vital nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, hence increasing crop yields. However, excess amounts of these nutrients can pollute water systems and promote the growth of algae. Algae blooms damage aquatic ecosystems by blocking sunlight from reaching underwater plants and decreasing the oxygen available for aquatic animals.

“Statewide, we are very likely applying 20-30 percent more nitrogen than what our crops need,” Jones said. “Why? Because the taxpayer shoulders the burden for the environmental consequences caused by the excess.”

Some farmers use animal manure as an alternative to chemical fertilizers. According to the EPA, manure also contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and stormwater carries the excess nutrients from the soil to nearby bodies of water.

To improve the quality of Iowa soil and water, speakers at the conference advocated alternative farming practices such as no tillage, crop rotation, and non-chemical pest control methods. Although alternative fertilizers such as livestock manure and domestic organic waste can still contribute to nutrient pollution, the speakers touted them as a more natural method of fertilizing crops. These methods would support the integrity of the soil, helping it retain more nutrients and decrease runoff to nearby water systems.

Citizen science

Some may dismiss these water quality problems as a matter for big institutions like the government or agriculture companies. However, through citizen science programs, people can make an impact at a community level.

The IOWATER program, started by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 1998, brought over 5,000 volunteers together to collect thousands of samples of nitrate levels, phosphorus levels, bacteria and water clarity. 

“Just through the act of collecting water samples, the volunteers started to spread their wings,” Skopec said. “They started to feel their power, their knowledge and their competence.”

Participating in citizen science gives everyday people, no matter their day job, the information to come to their own conclusions about Iowa’s water quality.Those  interested in citizen science can participate in Polk County Conservation’s water quality monitoring program. Visit www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/water-quality to get involved.

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