Collaboration is the path forward for water quality

Collaboration is the path forward for water quality

By Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture
Posted March 9, 2015

Iowa water quality is certainly a hot topic. Iowa farmers have been focused on the issue, but the potential Des Moines Water Works lawsuit has brought new attention to the topic.

The challenge has always been how do we make the most progress on this important issue in the timeliest manner. It is vitally important that we improve water quality while maintaining the strong agricultural production that is so important to Iowa’s economy.

I truly believe working with farmers, harnessing the innovation of our agriculture community and finding new ways to help us do an even better job on the farm is how we will see results. This is how we have made progress to increase yields and reduce soil erosion, and that is how we will see progress on water quality.

Des Moines Water Works is taking the wrong approach and has the potential to take us back to the days of finger-pointing and inaction. A lawsuit is years, if not a decade or more, away from reaching a final decision. Lawsuits and regulations don’t actually make water quality improvements — practices on the ground do that.

Cedar Rapids is a great example of a community that is taking the approach of working with farmers to address water quality issues. They recently received $2 million in funding through the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program to work with 16 organizations and agencies to address water quality and water supply issues for the city. Investing limited funds to work with farmers is much more productive than starting on a long and expensive court battle.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was unveiled in 2012 to better focus our water quality efforts. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and a group of scientists led by Iowa State University, working with a number of other partners, created a framework outlining what it would take to reach the aggressive goals we all share for water quality.

The strategy showed that we need additional practices implemented on farms focused specifically on improving water quality, as well as infrastructure improvements at sewage treatment plants and industrial sites.

Farmers and cities across the state are committed to meeting the challenge of improving water quality head on. No one is claiming we are done, but it is important to recognize the significant steps that have been taken. In the past two years, more farmers have tried new practices. They invest their own money, along with assistance from local, state and federal partners, to explore what they can do on their farm to better protect water quality.

It is important to recognize that Iowans have safe water to drink thanks to the hard work of the water supply utilities across the state. Fortunately, we have infrastructure in place to ensure a safe and reliable supply of drinking water in Des Moines and communities across the state.

There is a misconception that our water quality is terrible and getting worse. That is not true. The Iowa Soybean Association analyzed nearly 5,600 water samples taken from 41 sampling locations in the Raccoon River watershed from 1999 to 2014 and found that nitrate concentrations are decreasing significantly, down by nearly 25 percent on average. Analysis by the Iowa Geological Survey shows 80 percent of rivers show no significant change in nitrate levels.

My message to Iowans since this potential lawsuit was first announced was that we can’t let this distract us from the important work we have to do to improve water quality. Iowa’s agriculture community is committed to working together and making significant investments to continue to make progress. I hope Des Moines Water Works will join us in our efforts. Collaboration has been and will continue to be the most effective path forward for improving water quality in Iowa.

Northey is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake and is serving his third term as Iowa secretary of agriculture. More information about water quality efforts can be found at Contact: