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Muddy Waters: The Battle Between Ag and Urban over Water Quality in Iowa and Beyond

When I was a teacher, I often got as excited (or more so!) than my students about the topics we covered.  One such topic was the Chesapeake Bay.  Although our Social Studies textbook only had a one-page blurb about the Bay’s water quality struggles, I saw many opportunities to dig deeper.  My students and I created a multi-disciplinary unit centered on watersheds and studied it for weeks.  After learning about the Chesapeake Bay, we learned about our local watershed, as well.  The kids created non-fiction books about animals living in the bay, wrote haiku about beaches & fishing, and created art depicting the watershed in our local area.  We created a model of a watershed and then “polluted it” and tried to devise a way to clean up the pollutants.  Finally, we visited a local pond in collaboration with our county’s Soil and Water Conservation District.

What did my students (and I) learn from the watershed unit?  We learned that many things we do, from washing cars in the driveway to fertilizing our lawns to properly disposing of chemicals, affects water quality in Iowa and beyond. We learned that there is no single group responsible for water quality and that there are a combination of factors at play.  We learned that what happens in Iowa affects us locally, but because we are part of the larger Mississippi River watershed, our actions have far reaching repercussions; as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m no longer a teacher, but watersheds and water quality are still on my mind.  As a farmer and active member of Iowa’s agriculture community, water quality has come up over and over, and to be honest, I’m glad that I learned about watersheds alongside my students.  The unit we created together has given me an added insight into one of the biggest issues facing Iowa’s farmers today: water quality.

Under Attack

Water quality is a hot topic in Iowa right now.


In the words of our governor, our state capital of Des Moines has “declared war on rural Iowa.”  The Des Moines Water Works Board, which oversees the city’s drinking water systems, has decided to sue three rural Iowa counties because of high nitrate levels in the waters coming from those districts.  And they are pointing the finger at agriculture.

I believe they are wrong and that the lawsuit is misguided and will not effect change. But before I can explain my reasoning for feeling this way, we need to examine agriculture’s impact on Iowa’s watersheds and water quality.

What is a watershed?

A watershed is all of the land that drains into a particular body of water.  Our farm is part of the Squaw Creek Watershed, which is part of the South Skunk River Watershed.  Eventually, all the water from land around us drains into the Mississippi River, and moves downstream to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

What are the problems in Iowa’s watersheds?

Nonpoint Source Pollution is the biggest problem, and it occurs when snowmelt, rainfall, or irrigation waters run over the land and pick up pollutants, carrying them to nearby waterways.
This includes nutrients and sediment from Iowa’s fields.

Nutrients (specifically nitrogen and phosphorus) come from fertilizers, manure and human sewage.  Excessive nutrients cause algae blooms in lakes (making them smelly and making boating difficult), contribute to fish kills, and can cause water to require additional and costly treatment before drinking.

Sediment, or soil, is considered a pollutant when it ends up in Iowa’s waterways.  Weather events and erosion cause sediment from farm fields, construction sites, and stream banks to flow downstream.  Sediment fills in lakes, streams and ponds and destroys fish habitats.

What is the role of agriculture in Iowa’s water quality?

power & responsibility

Much of Iowa’s land is devoted to agriculture (as is much of our economy!) and as they say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The sheer volume of land that farmers own in Iowa means that what we do, collectively, makes a big difference!

In the past, farmers didn’t realize how their practices affected both local waters and distant ones.  When Pa Ingalls was breaking sod for the first time on his farms in the Midwest, he wasn’t thinking about the fact that the soil he was uncovering might wash away in the next big storm. And that mindset continued and contributed greatly to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  When pioneers first settled Iowa, there was 16 inches of fertile topsoil.  By the time the Dust Bowl was over, 100 years later, there was only 8 inches. Thankfully, soil erosion has slowed since then, but farmland definitely plays a part in the sediment issues.

Although fertilizers are used extensively on golf courses, private residences, and other green spaces, obviously farmers use them as well, and this also contributes to water quality issues.

What are farmers doing to improve water quality in Iowa?


strip till planting

The biggest two efforts relate to tillage and cover crops, but there are other conservation measures being used, too.
Conservation Tillage:
Tilling (or plowing) is often necessary to get the land ready for planting. And traditionally in Iowa, farmers till their ground after harvest in the fall, so that they can plant as soon as possible in the spring. This means that their fields are bare all winter long, with topsoil exposed to the elements, creating perfect conditions for erosion when snow melts or spring storms come.
But in the past few years, farmers have started using “conservation tillage” including no-till and strip-till methods.

No-till is just what it sounds like.  The ground is not tilled at all.  After the crop is harvested, the stubble is left in the field and protects it from erosion over the winter.  The stubble also acts as a water filter, keeping excess nutrients from entering waterways.  No-till only works with certain crops and certain soil types, so it is not something that can be used on every acre in Iowa.
Strip-till is another conservation tillage method where GPS technology guides a tiller through the field and small strips are tilled, which is where the seeds will be planted in the spring.  This leaves MOST of the land covered with crop stubble over the winter, but works for a different variety of crops.

It’s hard to get farmers to change.  New practices often require new EXPENSIVE machinery. No-till requires different kinds of planters and strip-till requires unique tillers and planters, and tractors with highly accurate GPS.  These methods also require more specialized labor and even veteran farmers are not always comfortable with the newest high tech machinery.

However, despite these challenges, nearly HALF (47%) of Iowa’s farmers are using no-till practices!  That is amazing to me, and a sure sign that we are on the right track.  It is something to be proud of, for sure.
Cover Crops:
Cover crops are another way farmers are keeping the soil in place and filtering nutrients.
A cover crop is a second crop, planted after the first is harvested, solely for the purpose of benefitting the soil.  These crops grow quickly in the fall and use up excess nutrients, keep the soil from compacting, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds.  These crops are never harvested.

Cover crops also require specialized equipment and are still very much in an experimental phase in Iowa.  Our early winters make it a challenge to get cover crops established in time, and different crops solve different soil issues, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cover crops.

But, the tides are turning. The latest data shows that almost 1/4 (23%) of farmers in Iowa are using cover crops! That number was higher than I expected, and again, something to be proud of!
Grassland, Buffer Strips and Filter Strips:
Basically, all three of these increase the amount of grassland (not farmed) near waterways.  Buffer strips are strips of grass along waterways and filter strips are grassy areas in fields where erosion is common. For example, the fields near our house are kind of hilly, and my father-in-law has a few filter strips that he doesn’t farm, in order to slow the water running off the hills. 

Fellow Iowa blogger Julie and her husband returned 30 acres to grassland recently. “There’s a slope to that area of the field and it feeds into a creek. We wanted to create a natural filter of prairie grass to help prevent nutrients from reaching the waterway.”  (By the way, farmland in Iowa sells for around $8,000 an acre right now, so I like to think of that 30 acres as a $240,000 investment into Iowa’s water quality.)
Precision Agriculture:
Precision Agriculture uses GPS technology to apply chemicals and fertilizers very precisely (hence the name.) Again, this requires expensive equipment and specialized training.  It also requires the internet, which is still a luxury in some rural parts of Iowa.

Precision Agriculture also gives farmers a chance to improve every year.  “It doesn't stop at computers and GPS alone.  With all this technology, we also have to use sound science when thinking about how our crop grows.  We use precision ag to analyze and improve from one year to the next.  Agronomy, Environmental Science, Economics, Politics, etc.  We need to know a lot.” (Quote from Kellie, Iowa farmer and blogger.)
Bioreactors & Other Innovations:
Last summer, I got to tour a “bioreactor” with a leadership class I was part of.  The bioreactor is basically a giant water filter at the edge of a field, made of wood mulch buried under ground.  The mulch “grabs” the excess nutrients and keeps them from entering waterways.

We also saw a restored oxbow.  An oxbow is sort of like a small tributary to a creek or stream, but it’s only connected to the stream during a flood.  During other times, it is cut off, like a permanent puddle.  Restoring oxbows keeps water from flowing directly into the stream, reducing nutrients in the water and providing habitat in the process.

Iowa, a National Leader

Iowa is leading the nation in agricultural water quality improvements.  Through the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy farmers (and urban constituents) are making changes that make a difference.  Since 1999, nitrate levels in the area in question have actually decreased 25%.  It’s true, we still have a long way to go, but we must acknowledge the progress and investments that have been made by farmers across the state.  CleanWaterIowa.org explains many of the nutrient reduction strategies I mentioned in more detail and profiles farmers who are actually using these strategies.


Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, is a strong advocate for water quality measures, and Governor Branstad’s 2015 budget includes $7.5 million for the Water Quality Initiatives (which is up from $2.4 mil in 2014.) These dollars will be used as cost-share incentives for farmers who are trying new water conservation practices.

Through strong leadership, innovation, and cost-share programs, Iowa’s agricultural community will continue to make improvements in water quality in 2015.

The War on Water Quality

Back to the real issue here: the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

It is not my county being sued. And we do not raise crops on our farm or own any farmland.  But based on my knowledge of agriculture and farmers, I believe that the Des Moines Water Works is taking the WRONG approach to this issue.

Water quality is not determined solely by agriculture and the solution to the problem is going to require collaboration among all stakeholders.  A lawsuit will not encourage collaboration. Instead, it perpetuates the “us vs. them” mentality that has led farmers to distrust urban leaders (and vice versa.)
Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy has only been in place for 18 months, and farmers are already making big changes.  Last year alone, farmers invested $13 million of their own money into conservation practices.  All Iowans need to applaud farmers’ efforts and encourage more of the same. 

As Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Let’s quit fighting, acknowledge that we ALL play a part in Iowa’s water quality issues, and work together towards a solution.

Rural-Urban - Joe Murphy

Did you learn something new from this blog post? Do you support the efforts farmers are making to improve Iowa’s water quality? If so, help me spread the word. SHARE this post on your facebook timeline.  PIN it on pinterest.  TWEET it to the world.  Because I believe that if you want to know the truth about what happens on farms, you have to ASK A FARMER, which is exactly what I did in my research for this blog post.