Guest Columnist

State and federal leaders are working on water quality

A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at the Weber farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at the Weber farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa is blessed with fertile soil and generations of innovators who produce food for the world. Like other Midwestern states, Iowa takes advantage of its proximity to the Mississippi River and the river’s connection to ports in the Gulf of Mexico to share its products. However, Iowa’s products aren’t the only things leaving the state and traveling down the river.

Just as farmers gather their harvest, the mighty Mississippi gathers water from a network of watersheds across the northern states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all the way down to states along the Gulf shores.

While individual states and communities benefit from the recreation and economic opportunities of the Mississippi River, we all share the responsibility to improve the infrastructure and the quality of the water flowing through it. To fully address water quality, we need leadership, resources, and action from every state along the Mississippi River, its tributaries, and the country as a whole.

As co-chairs of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, we bring together leaders from the states, along with EPA, USDA and other federal agencies, to help improve water quality and reduce the size, severity and duration of hypoxia in the Gulf. Our focus at the recent Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Baton Rouge was to coordinate activities, remove barriers, and bring together new ideas to accelerate progress in every state in the Mississippi River Basin.

As with many things, the challenges, opportunities, and progress toward improving water quality vary from state to state. Iowa has been proactive in this effort through the development and implementation of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This science-based plan sets out a road map for reducing nutrient loads leaving the state. It was developed by Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2013. Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy has served as a model for other states as they develop their own science assessments and nutrient reduction strategies tailored to their individual state’s needs.

In Iowa, rural and urban communities are stepping up to the challenge of improving water quality. Last year, more than $500 million was invested through public and private partnerships and funding sources to advance conservation practices in Iowa. Farmers have a high stake in this effort, as they want to improve their land for future generations. Nutrients and topsoil runoff is an economic drain on operations and productivity. That’s why we were pleased the USDA 2017 Census of Ag showed planted cover crop acres in Iowa increased 256 percent since the 2012 census.

While this is great progress, there still is more work to do in Iowa and every state in the Mississippi River Basin. As co-chairs of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force we are working to accelerate progress, remove regulatory barriers, and support state and locally-led efforts. We also will continue to highlight the progress all states are making along the way.

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Every watershed makes a difference. If we do the right things for the creeks and streams in communities across Iowa and other Mississippi River Basin states, we will make a difference in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Whether you own a quarter acre lot in town or a quarter section in the country, you own a piece of our water quality efforts. We ask you to join us and be part of the solution. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District to learn how you can make a difference in your community.

• Mike Naig is Iowa secretary of agriculture; co-chair of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. Dave Ross is U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for the Office of Water and co-chair of the task force.

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