Thoughts on Iowa's water supply, ag runoff

John Norwood is a Polk County Soil and Water Commissioner.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette held an hour-long water quality panel last week as part of their ongoing Iowa Ideas series. Gazette columnist Todd Dorman moderated the panel, which included University of Iowa Research Engineer Chris Jones, Iowa Environmental Council staff attorney Michael Schmidt, and myself, a Polk County Soil and Water Commissioner elected in 2018.

We spoke about Iowa’s water quality challenges within the context of operating one of the world’s most productive agricultural systems, including 23 million acres of corn and soybean row crops. Dorman summarized highlights from the discussion, and the full replay is available on YouTube:

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Traveling in the Right Direction

The late Paul W. Johnson wrote the following essay as an introduction to Chapter Five of “The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries,” C. Meine and R. Knight, eds., University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. It is reproduced here with permission of the UW Press and Curt Meine. Paul was a staunch advocate of land use policies which served people and conserved natural resources. During his career, he served as an Iowa state legislator from Decorah, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The need to conserve soil and water seems obvious today. It was not always so. When Aldo Leopold began his conservation career with the US Forest Service, our nation was on a destructive rampage. Forests and croplands were thought to exist in limitless supply. Rangelands were considered useful only to the extent that they could support livestock grazing; range health was not an issue. Wetlands were considered wastelands. Surface waters were treated as sewers. Meandering streams were deemed too slow and inefficient, and wild rivers needed to be harnessed “for the good of mankind.”

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We All Want Clean Water

The “We All Want Clean Water” podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

About us:

Silvia Secchi is a Professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa.

Chris Jones is a Research Engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa.

This two-section essay (each of us communicating our own perspectives) outlines some of our thoughts on Iowa water quality within the context of production agriculture, and why we are beginning a regular podcast on this topic.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Bloody Run blooms again

Kenny Slocum is the naturalist and natural resource manager for the Clayton County Conservation Board. -promoted by Laura Belin

Bloody Run County Park already had a lot going for it when I began working for the Clayton County Conservation Board in 2015. The unassuming 135-acre park outside of Marquette, Iowa has held a special place in the hearts of trout fishermen for decades.

Bloody Run Creek, for which the park is named, is one of Iowa’s few official Outstanding Waters, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources designation reserved for water bodies with exceptionally high quality. The name conjures up evocative imagery of battles won and lost in ages past. Indeed, local folklore offers an array of colorful etymologies and, fact-based or not, they speak to the rugged valley’s longstanding appreciation and respect from the people who know it best.

Unfortunately, it is now ground zero for a modern battle between industrial agriculture and environmentalists.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Speaking for the prairie

Tommy Hexter ‘21 and Jacy Highbarger ‘22 wrote this post. The authors are co-founders of Grinnell College’s chapter of Herbicide-Free Campus; Poweshiek Soil and Water Commissioner (former), and student members of Too Much Grass student-initiative at Grinnell College.

In the spring of 2021, a group of excited Grinnell College students, along with faculty and staff, acted on a student initiative called “Too Much Grass” and came together to create a 5,200 square foot prairie in the most prominent location on campus, Mac Field.

In collaboration with the College Center for Prairie Studies and the recently-founded Herbicide-Free Grinnell, chapter of the larger organization Herbicide-Free Campus, Too Much Grass aims to remove unnecessary lawn areas on campus and plant prairie seeds in their place. The hope is to create a place where future Grinnellians for generations to come will loaf through the planting and ponder the meaning of these deep perennial roots in Iowa soil.

In just three months, this project has already sparked interest in another planting on campus scheduled for September.  

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Finding a path for people and wildlife in the Loess Hills

Patrick Swanson takes over this week’s edition of Iowa wildflower Wednesday. -promoted by Laura Belin

Earlier this month marked the first of what I hope to be a more common event in western Iowa: an organized multi-day hike through the Loess Hills. 

Conceived and orchestrated by Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and other partners, the Lo(ess) Hi(lls) Trek, as it was called, gave about 30 folks the opportunity to walk a route through and between conservation lands in Monona County. Golden Hills RC&D recently posted an excellent day-by-day synopsis of the LoHi Trek, so I won’t recap the details here.

As a participant, I would like to offer some of my reflections on this journey.  

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