Farmers in One Iowa County Help City Cut Mississippi River Nutrient Flows

Nov 20, 2020  | 7 min  | Ep4614

Presidential transitions are filled with last-minute efforts to address campaign promises or leave final edicts on priorities.

Environmentalists are watching the White House for changes to protections currently on the books.

The health of rivers and streams are key to those making a living off the water.

Josh Buettner has more in our Cover Story:

Charlie Cretsinger/Owner – Catfish Charlie’s – Dubuque, Iowa:  “The boat has been slow.  My catering operation is pretty much non-existent…you don’t have the corporate events.  You don’t have weddings and things like that.”

Charlie Cretsinger’s Dubuque, Iowa business was hit hard by the economic side-effects of COVID-19.  Income streams like river cruises are anchored to his restaurant, Catfish Charlie’s, located on the banks of the Mississippi River - which specializes in fresh river-caught cuisine.

Charlie Cretsinger/Owner – Catfish Charlie’s – Dubuque, Iowa:  “You got the fillet on the back here, right around the front, we call them collars.  So we’re going to sauté some of that up in a white wine clam sauce….Obviously we shut down the restaurant for what, six, seven, eight weeks…but we did to-go orders and that was slow.  I mean, it was a lot of to-go orders compared to what we normally do, but you can’t do that type of volume.  You’re selling food now.  You’re not selling a drink with it.”

Cretsinger works with local fishermen who catch carp and catfish under a commercial license permitted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 

Charlie Cretsinger/Owner – Catfish Charlie’s – Dubuque, Iowa:  “That’s our Cajun catfish with a Cajun shrimp creole… We take catfish to another level and we’re proud of our catfish.”

While a fresh Iowa catch matters to local economies-of-scale, state officials estimate the value of all fish and their eggs along Big Muddy’s Iowa coast at just $600,000 annually. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $320 million the Hawkeye State rakes in licensing half a million anglers every year.

Iowa DNR says around 180 Iowa-licensed commercial fishermen and helpers work the Mississippi River every year, though few as their sole means of employment.  But their profits, and Cretsinger’s, are tied, in part, to the health of the river. 

Eric Schmechel/Watershed Program Director/Dubuque County Soil & Water Conservation District:  “In Dubuque County, we have a lot of highly erodible land…streambank erosion…  The more sediment we can keep out of our streams, it’s huge for aquatic life, the Mississippi River and so forth.”

Northeast Iowa farmers and conservationists have joined forces in the past to address land-related water quality and habitat issues.  An ambitious new approach looks to build on that heritage by dovetailing into a larger proactive environmental framework.

Eric Schmechel/Watershed Program Director/Dubuque County Soil & Water Conservation District:  “The city of Dubuque was the first city in the state of Iowa to enter an MOU with the DNR, as it relates to kind of the process of how the nutrient reduction exchange would work.”

Eric Schmechel is Watershed Program Director with Dubuque Soil and Water Conservation District.  Through a first of its kind agreement, the district has teamed-up with city, county and state government to implement the Iowa Nutrient Exchange project.  And officials in Dubuque say a handful of other Iowa cities and towns would like to adopt a similar approach.

Eric Schmechel/Watershed Program Director/Dubuque County Soil & Water Conservation District:  “It is not a law.  It’s a voluntary approach…a partnership with point source and non-point source water permits that look at how we can work together to improve water quality.”

Dubuque’s urban/rural pact builds upon the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy or NRS.  First enacted in 2013, the guidelines are designed to combat Iowa’s alleged disproportionate contribution to the weather, chemical, land and water-use cocktail downed by the Mississippi River and delivered into the Gulf of Mexico.  The resulting oxygen-deprived or hypoxic region, more commonly known as the Dead Zone, has been plagued by seasonal runoff-fed algae growth.  This year scientists measured the area, incapable of supporting aquatic life, at over 2,000 square miles.

Environmental critics say Iowa’s goal to reduce nutrient flows by 45 percent has no teeth.  But Schmechel says his NRS-aligned conservation work with upstream farmers goes further with an alternative to expensive environmental compliance for municipal utilities tasked with shaving wastewater output of nitrogen and phosphorus to 66 and 75 percent, respectively.

Eric Schmechel/Watershed Program Director/Dubuque County Soil & Water Conservation District:  “Let’s say he wants to convert a field to no-till or he wants to put a buffer in along a stream.  We then model those practices on his field stream using what’s called a nutrient tracking tool.  We get the outputs of what those reductions are as for both phosphorous and nitrogen.  We enter those outputs into a federal database that the DNR then checks and then the city of Dubuque can claim some of that credit back into their permit.”

Eric Miller/Cascade, Iowa:  “So I got 17 different species going in here to try to stimulate my biology.” 

Cover crops have become an important piece of the financial puzzle for Eric Miller who raises row crops outside Cascade, Iowa. 

Eric Miller/Cascade, Iowa:  “The longer you can keep a living root in the soil, the quicker it’s going to change the soil.”

His plants sequester carbon, build beneficial bacteria to boost traditional commodity yields, and in some cases, bring value-added returns from niche markets.

Eric Miller/Cascade, Iowa:  “Just this past year, we started malting our own grains – growing and malting barley here for local breweries. It’s almost like a side effect, the better water quality.”

Miller says the deeper roots scavenge for nutrients corn and soybeans can’t reach and during rain events, his soil now sponges up and slows down stormwater runoff.  He tracks the field data and says he’s been able to slice pest and disease control expenses as well.

Eric Miller/Cascade, Iowa:  “Any time there’s nutrients leaving our farm, that’s money leaving our farm.  So this is a way for me to kind of take control of my input costs and improve my bottom line.”

Considering the sheer volume of regional agricultural products that move down the Upper Mississippi corridor, Miller says Iowa’s number one export is still topsoil, and endless work remains.

Charlie Cretsinger’s primary bounty of bottom feeders might be at home in the muck downstream, but the former farm kid deeply appreciates Dubuque County’s stewardship strides.

Charlie Cretsinger/Owner – Catfish Charlie’s – Dubuque, Iowa:  “Anything we can do in the United States to keep things cleaner and better is a beautiful thing.  And farming is big business.  So when you take ground away from them guys, it hurts them, you know?  We’re asking them to do things to keep our world a better place.  They should be paid for that.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.  Twitter: @mtmjosh

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