Iowa’s Water Crisis: Let’s Talk

Finding Common Ground within a Divisive Issue

Written by Dr. Richard Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center and Professor in Agronomy at Iowa State University

We have all come to realize from the recent discourse in the news that water quality can be a bit political. Academic types, like myself, prefer to avoid situations where the political nature of controversial issues are likely to erupt.  Two weeks ago, the Story County Iowa Democrats hosted a public discussion titled, “Iowa’s Water Crisis: Let’s Talk” in Ames, Iowa. I was invited to be part of the panel discussion alongside Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, and Seth Watkins, a farmer and Republican from Southwest Iowa. During this event, we had the ‘opportunity’ to objectively discuss Iowa’s water crisis.

From my perspective, the challenge involved being academically factual while maintaining a non-confrontational posture with either panel members. An additional challenge was to determine how to engage an audience in a Q&A format in a manner that avoids agenda-setting while still be informative and engaging. As an individual accustomed to lecture halls, I was out of my element. This is because I learned a few minutes before the event that my PowerPoint presentation I had prepared could not be used.  An academic without PowerPoint is like a glass of wine without the wine, or maybe without the glass, too.

Each panelist was given a moment to address the crowd of about 40-50 community members in attendance. I, the academic, made the statement that Iowa does not have a real water crisis.  Flint, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio water issues have exemplified water crises.  Iowa has a water challenge. It is our responsibility to strategically and proactively act so that it does not become a crisis. This statement was in contradiction to a prior statement made by Mr. Stowe who addressed the crowd before me during the evening’s agenda.

To my surprise, my statement seemed to gain traction and was not challenged by panel members or the audience.  Agreement and a general consensus seemed to exist over most components of the water quality Q&A portion of the event.  Seth Watkins repeatedly emphasized that caring for the land was his most important farm goal, and that good land management practices lead to farm profitability and improve water quality.

Incorporating conservation practices, specifically perennials, into the landscape was emphasized throughout the evening as a means for how farmers can address water quality impacts of their practices. The resounding question following this solution is: How do we get perennials worked into Iowa’s farming systems?

The academic response to this challenge is: Decentralize the livestock industry, such that livestock again can become an important part of the farming system. This allows for a financial use for the perennials that we desperately need for both soil conservation and water quality improvement.

Seth Watkins is a poster child for such a system. Watkins is a fourth generation farmer from Clarinda, Iowa who has a 600-head cow-calf operation and grows hay and corn. He uses a variety of conservation practices including: rotational grazing, restricted wildlife areas, riparian buffers, no-till, and cover crops, among many other practices. Watkins listens to the ecology of his farm ground and works to build an integrated system with his livestock and his crop production.

A question I had before entering the event was: Can a water quality discussion organized by a political organization be pulled-off without political rhetoric?  Before the event, I would have likely said, “NO.”  However, the Story County Democrat panel discussion was a breath of fresh air, informative, and proactive.  My academic fears associated with such an event were totally unfounded!

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