Water quality a looming challenge

Perhaps one of the greatest environmental challenges Iowans face in the coming decades is that of maintaining clean sources of water for our livelihood and recreation. Water quality is an issue that cuts across the rural-urban divide in Iowa and the Midwest.

Farmers must protect their fields from soil erosion and manage nutrients. Rural communities must contend with shrinking economic resources to provide clean water and adequate sewer treatment as facilities age and deteriorate. Urban areas must realize that non-permeable surfaces lead to high rates of runoff that send yard fertilizers and other industrial chemicals into waterways. Iowa’s clean water is everyone’s responsibility because watersheds know no personal or political boundaries.

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the publication of “Water Quality Matters to Us All,” which provides insight into the attitudes and practices of agencies and stakeholders involved in protecting Iowa’s water quality. Based on listening sessions over a three-year period (2008-11) with farmers, urban residents, Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners, and field staff from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the book details the institutional, community and individual impediments toward water conservation and curtailing of nonpoint source pollution.

New book pulls no punches

The book examines how attitudes and beliefs about the reliability of scientific evidence, personal responsibility, land ownership and government intervention can prevent cooperation between the agencies charged with protecting natural resources from pollution and individual polluters. By relying on interview excerpts, the book chronicles the conflicts in the state that are preventing concerted action in protecting our water quality.

Allen Bonini, supervisor of the Watershed Improvement Section of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says about “Water Quality Matters to Us All”: “This analysis gives the reader a candid, unfiltered peek into the diverse and often conflicting views of the many different players engaged in trying to improve water quality for future generations of Iowans. The solution to these challenges will require more than money and technology; it will require people to see themselves and their behaviors as part of the solution.”

The book diagnoses the apathy toward improving water quality by situating debates about conservation practices within the context of historic high corn prices, increased flooding and dramatic rain events, and decreased soil quality. For instance, in hopes of making increased profits from high grain prices, many acres of reserve ground are now being farmed, close to creeks, along ditches and between fence posts.

Likewise, city populations are rising, pulling land out of production for residences, businesses and parking lots, and increasing urban runoff. As a result, rivers in Iowa and downstream contain sediment and chemicals that are harmful.

The book concludes that pointing fingers isn’t a solution, but that there are real attitude and institutional impediments to ensuring water quality in the state.

For this reason, educating policymakers, agency staff and private citizens — both rural and urban — is key.

To improve environmental literacy, ILF believes a statewide effort should be launched to inform people about water quality issues, motivate them to get involved and ultimately to change their behavior toward water and water usage. It is only when we clearly see how our own practices impact the watershed we live on, will we start to take responsibility for ourselves and change our attitudes. Ultimately, water quality matters to us all.

For a copy of “Water Quality Matters to Us All,” email ilf@iastate.edu with your request with your mailing address.

Comito is the program manager for Iowa Learning Farms and lead author of “Water Quality Matters to Us All.”

This article published in the November, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.