Accelerating the pace and scale of quantifiable water quality improvements in Iowa is the mission of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance or IAWA, launched August 25 by agricultural and environmental stakeholders at a news conference in Des Moines. Created and funded by the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Pork Producers Association, the alliance will increase farmer awareness of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the adoption of science-based practices proven to have environmental benefits. That's the purpose of IAWA, according to leaders of the new organization.
However, some environmentalists have expressed doubt right away that this approach will be strong enough. "It looks like a step ahead, but it could be a baby step compared to the bold action that's needed to improve Iowa's water quality," says Craig Cox, vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
Alliance formed to accelerate pace, scale of water quality improvement
Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey and Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp participated in the IAWA announcement at the Iowa State Capitol. They recognized the critical role farmers play in the strategy's success and the role IAWA will serve in facilitating their engagement and participation.
"Farmers are problem solvers and they rise to any challenge," Branstad said. "Iowa's approach to positively impacting water quality as established in the nutrient reduction strategy is unprecedented nationally in both its scope and scale. The alliance will generate additional momentum to the benefit of all Iowans, rural and urban."
The non-profit alliance is headquartered at the Iowa Soybean Association in Ankeny. It's governed by a board of directors chaired by ISA CEO Kirk Leeds. Craig Floss, Iowa Corn CEO, serves as vice chair while Rich Degner, Iowa Pork Producers CEO, is secretary-treasurer. Additional board members will be added.
Some environmental groups are pushing for regulations
Some environmental groups say regulation to force Iowa farmers to adopt conservation measures that can greatly reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fields is what is needed. The runoff contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone as well as harms Iowa's drinking water. However, the leaders of the new IAWA alliance say regulations aren't the answer and won't solve water quality problems.
"A simplistic, regulatory scheme will not improve water quality nor will another marketing campaign touting the importance of farming," Leeds says. "Serious matters demand a serious approach and farmers are committed to achieving results. The formation of IAWA is one more example of farmers' readiness to invest private resources to make a real and meaningful impact."
Organization leaders of IAWA say the alliance will leverage private partnerships and investments to ramp up public support. The nutrient reduction strategy, they say, is still in its early implementation and private support is critical to boost long-term investments and progress. IAWA supports the voluntary and educational approach of the nutrient management strategy. They say education, not regulation, is what's needed.
McMahon is chosen as IAWA executive director
Sean McMahon will serve as IAWA executive director. He lives in Cumming and presently directs The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) North America Agriculture Program. He also served as state director of the Iowa Chapter of TNC and prior to that, directed national land stewardship campaigns with the National Wildlife Federation.
McMahon relishes the chance to serve, adding that the effort will take time and many partners and collaborators to achieve the necessary reductions in nutrient loss at the scale that's needed. "I welcome the opportunity to lead such a unique and important effort because I care deeply about Iowa's natural resources and improving our water quality for current and future generations of Iowans," he says. "Iowa farmers have a crucial role to play in helping meet the growing domestic and global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel and they can do so in an increasingly sustainable manner. I look forward to using my experience and relationships in both the ag and environmental communities to help make significant improvements in Iowa's water quality."
New water quality alliance supports voluntary approach
One of McMahon's first responsibilities will be to hire additional IAWA staff including a program-project manager and communications manager. In addition to increasing awareness of the nutrient strategy and increasing the adoption rate of conservation practices, the team will:
* Enhance understanding by the public and key decision makers about the needed flexibility in addressing nonpoint nutrient sources impacting water quality;
* Support Iowa State University and other committed partners in developing environmental performance metrics and measurements supported by credible data; and
* Securing significant funding from public and private sources to accomplish the IAWA's mission and goals.
Nutrient reduction strategy is voluntary, has no timeline
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy approved last year is a science-based initiative to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loads in Iowa waterways from point and nonpoint sources by 45%. However, the nutrient reduction strategy is voluntary and has no timeline. Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Waterworks, has been critical of the nutrient reduction strategy, saying farmers should be required to measure, and reduce, nutrients in Iowa waterways that feed water to municipal water supplies. The Des Moines Waterworks spent about $1 million last year to remove harmful nitrates from the city's drinking water.
"We certainly hope the new IAWA organization and new use of resources will move toward a more meaningful implementation of a true nutrient management strategy, says Stowe. "But without timetables and metrics, we see this as reshuffling a deck of blank cards." But Leeds, the leader of the Iowa Soybean Association, says the ramped-up voluntary approach is a better approach than "a regulatory scheme that will not improve water quality." He and the other leaders of IAWA point out that reducing nutrients in Iowa waterways isn't as simple as "flipping on a switch."