Clean Water Stakeholders Continue Uphill Climb in Iowa

Market to Market | Clip
Apr 21, 2023 | 6 min

The Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance will be hosting four field days in May for elected officials, chamber of commerce members and the media. 

The goal is to highlight water conservation practices and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

The issue of water quality is a sensitive topic in Iowa as all parties seek to find a balance between agriculture, commerce and end users. 

Josh Buettner looks at the challenge for Iowa’s farmers and utilities in this week’s Cover Story.


Iowa is a national leader in several farm commodities, but collateral damage, in the form of runoff impaired waterways, has spurred past legal actions designed to thwart pollution linked to agriculture.

While ultimately dismissed, those moves have helped cultivate farm conservation awareness.

Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “Because our lawsuit went away, the Raccoon River did not clean up.  The Des Moines River did not clean up.  There’s still nutrient contamination that still needs to be addressed, and we want to have those conversations.”

Ted Corrigan is current CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, which sued farm drainage districts upstream in 2015 over excess nitrates the utility must remove in order to deliver federally compliant clean drinking water.

Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “We’re never going to be off the river.  We are always going to need direct surface water at Des Moines Water Works, and so we are always going to fight for water quality.”

Critics charge excess fertilizers and manure, applied year-over-year at similar rates, can build up during drought and flush out of fields with ever-wetter spring rains.

Chris Jones/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research/University of Iowa: “This is a nitrate sensor.”

The University of Iowa maintains a statewide network of roughly 70 streambank monitoring sites. The real-time data helps chart progress toward the state’s water quality objectives.

Iowa adopted the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013, a voluntary, open-ended approach to drop nitrogen and phosphorous loads by 45 percent.  The program’s own assessments found over 90 percent of the state’s nutrient flows were generated through agriculture.

Scientists have long tied farm pollutants in the Mississippi River watershed, where Iowa is grounded, to the Gulf of Mexico’s seasonal low-hypoxic zone.

Chris Jones/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research/University of Iowa: “As I always say, if you’re going to have a voluntary strategy, you need to have volunteers.”

Chris Jones is an outspoken research engineer and author of “The Swine Republic”, which rebukes what he describes as agriculture’s status quo in Iowa.  Jones says water quality challenges in the state are driven by agribusiness influence, vested political interests, and a combination of ubiquitous, highly efficient farm drainage tiling with relatively low conservation uptake.

Chris Jones/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research/University of Iowa: “There’s no magic bullet.  We have a problem of scale.  We’re trying to farm every piece of farmable land, pretty much, in the state.  We’re trying to raise 25 million hogs at any one time and however many cattle, and 80 million laying chickens.”

Researchers estimate some tens of billions of dollars could be required annually to adequately tackle the problem of flooding and water quality in Iowa’s watersheds.  Jones says that makes private landowner investment essential – but it remains elusive.

Chris Jones/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research/University of Iowa: “Can we ever get the water quality we want, at the scale at which we are doing things?  Right now, I would say no, we cannot.”

As needed, Des Moines Water Works employs their mammoth, but aging nitrate removal facility, which costs around $10,000 per day to operate.  Officials say it was fired up for 24 days last spring due to record rains, but dry weather had kept it offline for 5 years prior.  Water Works plans to continue proactively drilling riverside wells to mitigate future nutrient surges.

Event MC: “…so incredibly grateful that everybody is here today.”

Last year, the utility announced a groundbreaking partnership with Heartland Cooperative, along with state, county and city authorities to purchase a cover crop seeder, and encourage more conservation efforts.

Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “We see this single cover crop seeder as the beginning of a whole fleet of these across the state.”

Corrigan says 2022 saw over 7000 acres of cover crops planted across ten counties in Water Works’ watersheds, and state authorities seem interested and supportive.

Sec. Mike Naig/Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship: “We believe that that’s the right way to approach these issues, is science-based practices, and working in partnership.  And flat out, if you want to see improvement in the water, well then you’ve got to see change on the landscape.”

Water advocates would like to see more action and funding from the statehouse.  Over a decade ago, Iowa voters approved a water quality amendment, dependent on tax revenue, which has gone unfulfilled.  Some legislators have claimed strides toward funding clean water initiatives, and a specifically designed tax package was introduced this year in the state senate.

But environmental groups expect it to languish, and hope other proposed measures restricting topsoil replacement, open space and trail acquisition which they claim are detrimental to water quality will do the same.  Observers say the will to raise taxes isn’t present this session.

For Jones, strategies he says lack accountability are still not enough to move the needle – as rural influence can drown out urban concerns on this topic.

Chris Jones/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research/University of Iowa: “We really need to look at some common sense things.  We farm right up to the stream banks all over Iowa.  Why do we do that?  We need rules about what can be farmed, what the inputs should be, and the amounts of inputs – if we want water quality.  If that’s our priority, we have to be able to talk about things like that.

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.