By Steve Weisman
The Okoboji Blue Water Festival held on Saturday, August 13 at Preservation Plaza on the shores of West Okoboji was a true celebration of all that is “good” about our clean water efforts. That being said, there is so much more to do, and in our lifetime so little time in which to do it!
That is why panel discussions from a diverse group of “experts in their field” can be helpful to the general public. Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, moderated just such a panel discussion at the Okoboji Blue Water Festival and the speakers included:
- Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance
- Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council
- Keith Schilling, University of Iowa hydro-science engineer
- Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources
- Jennifer Terry, Des Moines Water Works
- Jonathan Gano, Des Moines Public Works Director
Now, that’s about as diverse as you can get. Basically these representatives cover a cross section of Iowa’s population. The overall theme revolved around the question of “What does water quality mean?” The panelists all found water important, but each with a different viewpoint based on the perspective of the population that they represent.
Several people in attendance presented McGovern written questions for him to ask the panelists. It became obvious that clean water was important, and the audience-as so many Iowans do-wanted answers and wanted leaders to work together to make things happen before it is too late! McGovern set the tone shortly into the discussion by saying, “We all want the same thing, but how do we get there? The huge problem is the lack of reliable funding.”
McMahon, who works directly with farmers, said, “We care about clean water.” He mentioned specifically the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was first introduced in the spring of 2013. It is a science-based initiative to reduce nitrate and phosphorus loads in Iowa waterways by 45 percent. He noted, “A combined and sustained effort from cities, industries, and agriculture will be required to achieve this goal.”
McMahon noted several effective solutions to help reach this goal: planting cover crops, installing bioreactors, using nitrogen inhibitors, using conservation tillage and no-till and restoring wetlands. However, at this point, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Susan Heathcote of the Iowa Environmental council noted that the council is the largest and most comprehensive environmental coalition in the state. She made this plea. “In Iowa, we have to work together to solve this problem. It comes from all of us-farmers, rural, urban, individuals and businesses. We all need to address the problem and also address the solution.” In other words, we need to look at the big picture and get a return for our investment – clean water!
As a hydro-science engineer at the University of Iowa, Keith Schilling, comes from the research and educational point of view. He, too, agreed to the importance of working together. He noted that taking care of the land was of utmost importance and stressed that perennial landscapes, adding a third crop, retiring poor land and restoring wetlands were ways to help with nutrient reduction. “Spring is the time of the year where bare crop land is most vulnerable. At this critical time, a cover crop can make a significant difference.”
Chuck Gipp has worn many hats over the years growing up on a farm, serving in the Iowa House of Representatives for 18 years and is now the director of the Iowa DNR. So, as he put it, “I’ve been on all sides of this issue. What I have learned is that you can’t rob from one entity for another one.” Gipp also encouraged those in attendance to “let your elected officials know what you want. Don’t sit back. Officials need to know what their constituents really want. When it comes to farming, we need to change our perception from thinking about bushels per acre to profitability per acre.” According to Gipp, there is a huge difference, and it means using the land in the right way.
Jennifer Terry, who is the Environmental Advocacy Leader for the Des Moines Water Works, believes the ultimate answer to clean water rests with all Iowans. “It’s about getting control of the entire watershed and stopping pollution where it starts.” Terry, who grew up on a dairy farm in north central Iowa, added this question, “What do farmers think are the right things to do on the farm?”
Realizing the frustration of funding, Terry believes that funds for clean water cannot all come from state funds. “We need to look for ways to co-sponsor clean water efforts and find sustained adequate long term funding through a holistic approach.”
Jonathan Gano has the task of handling the Des Moines wastewater infrastructure. When it comes to wastewater, Gano says his job is to “clean it, cool it down and slow it down!” Gano’s responsibility lies at the end of an entire watershed. “It’s really the whole structure. It is up to all entities up and down the watershed to positively affect the entire watershed. It’s all tied together.”
Several times during the panel discussion, questions came from the audience about the status of the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Reflecting on the discussion, McGovern later said, “The audience was obviously well educated and passionate about water quality. A recurring question centered around, ‘When are we going to fund the Trust Fund’? The message that I got from these questions was that people want the Trust fund funded and the existing formula to remain the same. There was not one question or comment against the Trust Fund.” Funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would provide a permanent, reliable, dedicated and accountable funding mechanism for the protection of water quality, conservation of agricultural soils and improvement of natural areas in Iowa including fish and wildlife habitat. In other words, it provides something for all Iowans.
McGovern continued, “The panelists seemed to agree that any water quality practices should have multiple benefits like recreation, wildlife habitat, lake restoration and public benefit and access.” At the same time, McGovern sensed great frustration that even though Iowa’s voters had voted to create the constitutionally protected Trust Fund, the Iowa legislature has yet to fund it by raising the sales tax and allowing 3/8ths of one cent be used to provide funding. “It is time for Iowans to reach out to legislators and get them to act on the desires of their constituents!”
As a member of the audience, I thought it was a good, intelligent discussion that shows the need for Iowans to come together. We are all pieces of a puzzle that when linked together will address clean water as a whole! We owe it to ourselves and future generations to do the right thing-NOW!