Expert panel discusses Iowa water quality challenges at League of Women Voters forum

Panelists seated at the League of Women voters event April 17.

From left to right: Steve Veysey, Jackie Comito, Bill Ehm, Mary Skopec, Bill Stowe, and Susan Heathcote.

In April, Iowa Environmental Council water program director Susan Heathcote participated in a panel discussion on Iowa’s water quality challenges sponsored by the Des Moines chapter of the League of Women Voters.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Clean Water Act, federal legislation passed in 1972 that has played a role in controlling point source pollution from industrial and municipal sources across the country.  But at the water quality forum, held in Des Moines’ Plymouth Congregational Church, panelists recognized that the new challenge for protecting Iowa’s water quality involves nonpoint source pollution, which comes from water moving across the landscape instead of a particular pipe or point source.

Panelists discussed how conversion of land to agricultural use in Iowa has changed the way water moves across the state’s landscape, dramatically altering the natural system.  They agreed that a large part of the Iowa’s challenge involves holding water where it falls on the landscape so that natural filtration processes can do their work to keep water clean.

The policy choices for achieving these goals, however, are complex.  With the exception of large livestock operations, Iowa’s farms, which contribute large amounts of nonpoint source pollution, have not been regulated under the Clean Water Act which applies to cities and other industries.

The panel discussed whether a regulatory approach similar to that of the Clean Water Act could be part of the solution for nonpoint source pollution, but noted significant barriers to that type of action exist.  Panelists made clear that Iowa’s current system for controlling this pollution involves voluntary participation in conservation programs by farmers and landowners.  Getting the nonpoint pollution problem under control will require additional participation from farmers and landowners, and methods for achieving this are a matter of ongoing debate.

For her part, Heathcote explained the Iowa Environmental Council is looking for ways to go beyond the traditional farm based conservation programs to coordinate landscape scale solutions to restore some of these natural filtration systems—like planting perennial grass buffers along streams or construction of  wetlands —to capture and remove agricultural pollution before it is transported downstream to our rivers and lakes.

“You’ve got to design back into the landscape some of the natural systems that will help slow down the water and allow natural filtration to remove pollutants,” Heathcote said.  She added that setting watershed based performance standards for pollution reductions that would meet Iowans’ clean water goals would help define the magnitude of change needed and the strategies that will be successful in meeting this challenge.

Panelists at the event included

Sherrie Taha with the League of Women Voters moderated the event.

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