Nestled next to the Mississippi River, Muscatine, Iowa, is a picturesque town, but it's also in a major regional and national watershed getting more attention. Concerns about water quality — and ways to improve it — have become an incentive for city officials that has driven a new agreement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The agreement will allow investment in conservation practices on farms to improve water quality and help the city's water treatment plant meet state water quality goals. Muscatine is the fifth community to sign such an agreement. The first include Ames, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Storm Lake.
Sand County Foundation is a national agriculture conservation nonprofit has worked with these municipalities and the Iowa DNR to develop a model agreement. The program incentivizes cities and farmers within the same watersheds to address water quality together.
In announcing the Muscatine agreement, Bartlett Durand, an attorney with Sand County Foundation and the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, says, "The first agreements are providing a road map for Iowa cities to address state water quality requirements. They create a way for cities to assist upstream farmers with farm conservation practices that reduce erosion and excess nutrient runoff."
Durand adds that the approach of financing farm conservation work offers another way to improve river, lake and stream quality. And it can be done in place of "expensive upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants," he says. "This opens the door to cooperation across a watershed, and for more urban-rural partnerships across Iowa."
The agreement allows Muscatine to invest in practices such as cover crops on farms in the Copperas-Duck and Lower Cedar watersheds, to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding.
"This agreement allows us to focus our resources on the best practices to reduce excess nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water — as well as to reduce flooding in our community," says Jon Koch, director of the Water and Resource Recovery Facility.
Muscatine has already engaged in conservation efforts, and this agreement can build on that work. Already, the city has established an organic recycling center, a 55-acre park that collects stormwater and provides insect pollinator habitat, and two natural areas (called bio-cells) that receive and treat the downtown area's runoff before it is returned to the Mississippi River.
The state requires Muscatine and about 100 other communities to reduce nitrogen levels by 66% and phosphorus levels by 75% at the wastewater treatment plants. Timetables to accomplish this vary by community.
Those wastewater reduction goals are part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that calls for urban and rural areas to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches the Mississippi River and contributes to the "dead zone" where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Sand County Foundation points to research from the University of Iowa showing Iowa's contribution to this problem is increasing, compared to other states.
Durand says communities like Muscatine could see a $10 match in public and private funds for every $1 invested in conservation practices.
Robert Palmer, general counsel for the Iowa League of Cities, says, "This is a big deal for Iowa's cities, big and small," when the DNR agreed to these urban-rural partnerships.
"Cities and local farmers should be given flexibility to achieve the water quality goals set by the state," Durand adds.