Collaboration and engagement are keys to conservation efforts in the Iowa watersheds. Sharing expert insights, engaging landowners in the value of conservation, and involving citizens in conservation opportunities, the Iowa UMRI division uses every opportunity to advocate for better water quality.
The Iowa UMRI continues its education, outreach, and engagement activities to promote conservation and water quality despite COVID-19 social distancing and other restrictions.
Throughout the UMRI watersheds, the association connects with Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) chapters and other organizations to:
- Connect Save Our Stream teams to monitor water quality.
- Work with landowners and farmers to enhance conservation through agriculture, land stewardship, soil health, and water quality programs.
- Highlight conservation contributions through farmers appreciation events.
- Coordinate water quality efforts with the Cedar River Initiative.
Summer 2020 events require social distancing, but these youth engagement activities continue the UMRI conservation mission. For information about these events, contact UMRI at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Saturday, July 11, 2020: Tipton Prairie, youth education experience, Green County
- Saturday, August 8, 2020: Yeader Creek, youth education experience, Polk County
- Saturday September 12, 2020: Delaney’s Prairie, youth education experience, Dallas County
In 2021, special events with IWLA watershed partners in Decorah, Iowa, and Oskaloosa, Iowa, will focus on water quality efforts in those regions. Watch the website for details or contact email@example.com for information about the events.
Farmers: Hands-On Conservation Leaders
Farmers and landowners are on the front lines. All Des Moines IWL chapter members (Ikes) pledge to defend our air, soil, water, woods, and wildlife. To recognize that shared commitment, the chapter recognizes those who actively conserve, restore, and promote the sustainable use and enjoyment of natural resources, including soil, air, water, and wildlife.
Farmers Appreciation Night on March 10, 2020, continued the long tradition of thanking landowners for allowing Ikes to hunt on their land. At the dinner event, 104 participants—including 31 farmer-guests—gained insight into farming trends, conservation programs, and experimental agricultural practices.
Keynote speaker Bob Quinn, a farm program radio host, entertained the crowd with details about precision agriculture, nutrient management, the popularity of smaller tractors, cover crops, soil health concerns, alternative crops such as hemp, and other farming trends.
During a panel discussion, farmer Jim Caligiuri shared his family’s long engagement with conservation. Farmer Darwin Gordon discussed taking advantage of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency programs that improve production, preserve soil, and add to habitat for wildlife. Travis Lautner, Des Moines Area Community College agriculture program director, spoke about the practices at the DMACC learning farm in Dallas County. Cover crops, soil health, reduction of inputs, and precision planting and weed control are highlights the program’s experiments.
Collaboration and Progress on Cedar River Issues
“Our strength lies in our grassroots, commonsense approach to solving local, regional, and national conservation issues,” says Dave Zentner, UMRI director.
To facilitate those efforts, the Cedar River Initiative conference on January 25, 2020, gathered invested parties to connect, plan, and address Cedar River problems and solutions.
The Cedar River is part of Iowa’s water quality crisis. The Austin, Minnesota, IWLA chapter, with the support of the UMRI, conducted water quality tests to identify problems such as high E. coli counts in the Cedar River. More than 750 Iowa waterways are contaminated with bacteria, chemicals, and animal waste, as well as eroded soil and plant materials. Depleted soils from industrialized agriculture fields are supplemented by increasing amounts of artificial nutrients, which leak into the watershed. With the additional impact of climate change, these challenges make it difficult for water utilities to provide safe, clean, and abundant drinking water for both rural and metropolitan areas. The test results will be used to develop solutions.
Members representing seven IWLA chapters in Iowa and Minnesota—along with representatives of the state and community—gathered in Cedar Rapids to discuss and plan solutions. They discussed collaborative efforts to monitor water quality and boost efforts to fix pollution problems.
The discussions included representatives from the:
- City of Cedar Rapids Water Management
- Iowa Environmental Council
- Iowa Environmental Law and Policy Center
- Iowa Watershed Management Authorities
- Iowa legislature
- League of Women Voters
- Linn County Conservation Department
The program highlighted assessments of the Cedar River, including historical data regarding soil loss, flooding, water quality, public health, and the economy. Discussions addressed the increasingly high levels of nitrates and other contaminants in the water, hormonal disrupters, bacteria, and cyanotoxins.
The City of Cedar Rapids mapped out its efforts in regard to public, municipal, and industry responsibilities. As water producers, the city is under increased pressure to meet water demands under less-than-ideal conditions, including rising nitrate levels in well water testing.
Initial planning further developed the network to facilitate volunteer monitoring and water quality training through the Save Our Streams (SOS) program. The plan includes collaboration with additional partners. It also involves more IWLA members throughout the Cedar River watersheds.
The group set additional goals
- To learn more about the biological integrity of the Cedar River.
- To understand landowner issues and collaborate with landowners on conservation efforts.
- To complete a water quality snapshot to complement USGS and IIHR real-time data.
Conservation Incentives for Non-Operating Landowners
Much of Iowa farmland is owned by landowners not directly involved in farm operations. These non-operating landowners (NOLs) may not realize the value of rental agreements that include implementation of conservation practices.
“In-field conservation practices like no-till, cover crops, and extended rotations will, over time, make the soil and each year’s crop more resilient to floods, droughts, and pests,” says Bonnie McGill, Smith Conservation fellow and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iowa. “These practices also reduce nutrient losses to our streams and capture carbon out of the atmosphere. But a farmer has no reason to implement these practices on rented land.”
To address the disconnect, landowners, conservation advocates, and experts gathered on November 7, 2019, to showcase the value of conservation practices to landowners and tenant farmers.
“Rental arrangements on these lands can dis-incentivize the adoption of conservation practices that could improve soil health, water quality, and land value,” says Mike Delaney, UMRI Iowa coordinator. Leading experts discussed ways to reach non-operating farm landowners and share the best resources to improve conservation on their land, including using rental agreements.
“Because over half of farmed land in Iowa is rented land, it is critical that landowners customize their lease terms to incentivize conservation practices, which will also improve the value of their land,” McGill says.
Participants also discussed how to work with tenant farmers to implement conservation practices that improve the value of land long-term while improving soil health and water quality in the near-term.
Watch highlights of the Land, Lunch and Learn event for insights into opportunities for landowners, tenants, and the general public.
Addressing Water Pollution Across Iowa
“Monitoring is the first step to improving water quality,” says Sam Briggs, IWLA Clean Water Program director. “You have to know what’s wrong to be able to fix it. Our goal is to train more stream monitors across Iowa and provide a home for their monitoring results that the public can use to find water quality information for their communities.”
Clean water advocates and experts considered water quality issues and solutions at the Iowa Water Quality Summit, July 20, 2019. Water quality challenges specific to Iowa were key focal points.
IOWATER, the state’s volunteer water quality monitoring program, no longer has funding. IWLA is working to find other ways for individuals and organizations to collaborate on a statewide volunteer water quality monitoring program.
“Iowa has over 750 impaired waterways and is one of the main contributors to the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Mike Delaney, UMRI Iowa coordinator. “Public health and recreation continue to be threatened by polluted waters. Monitoring waterways is critical to gauge how we are doing—for better or worse.”
The IWLA’s Clean Water Hub provides a nationwide database to share local water quality monitoring results. Due to the urgency of Iowa’s water quality problems, the IWLA dedicated a full-time staff person as the Midwest Save our Streams coordinator. This is a huge step to expand water quality monitoring efforts in Iowa.
During the summit, speakers, panel discussions, and breakout sessions incorporated knowledge, experience, challenges, and successes based on long-term programs. Presenters and panel members included:
- Mary Skopec (Iowa Lakeside Laboratory)
- Steve Konrady (Iowa DNR)
- Chris Jones (IIHR, University of Iowa)
- Dan Haug (Prairie Rivers of Iowa)
- Ted Corrigan (Des Moines Water Works)
- Susan Judkins (President, Watershed Management Association)
- Rich Leopold (Polk County Conservation)
UMRI Showcases Efforts at National Convention
Soil health and water quality conservation presentations at the IWLA National Convention on July 16-19, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa, emphasized UMRI’s conservation efforts. Speakers included:
- Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times
- Dr. Neil Hamilton, former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center
- Dr. Jerry Hatfield, former director of the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, a USDA Agricultural Research Service facility
- Seth Watkins, regenerative farmer, owner of Pinhook Farm, Clarinda, Iowa
- Dr. Connie McGill, postdoctoral researcher, David Smith Conservation Fellow, Society for Conservation Biology
- Dr. Mary Skopec, executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory
- David Cwiertny, director, Environmental Policy Research Program; senior research fellow in residence; director, Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination
- Bruce Carney, regenerative farmer, Maxwell, Iowa