Seeing the Iowa Great Lakes as a Clean Economic Model for Iowa

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Iowa Great Lakes continues to be situated perfectly as an example, a model, of how to implement bipartisan water quality and land management practices to the state of Iowa and beyond. Yes, it all starts with high quality water resources, but Dickinson County offers up ideas of how to balance water, public land and agricultural resources in a ratio that drives a rural economy in a contrasting model to the other 98 counties in the state.

How unique is the Iowa Great Lakes? Well, to make a very long conservation story short, we are not just extremely unique in Iowa, but in the United States as a whole. We must not take our resources, and approach, for granted. Who else in the state could work in a bipartisan fashion, implement a successful water quality conference followed up by a festival to celebrate water?

Let’s review the good while also taking a look at how we continue to build on our success of working as a partner with the agricultural community. There are opportunities to restore natural landscape features with benefits to soil and nutrient retention while also adding soil health, carbon sequestration and outdoor recreation into the mix.

A look back

The Prairie Lakes Conference and Blue Water Festivals returned to the Iowa Great Lakes region in an expanded fashion last August 2017. Conservation professionals from the Upper Midwest came together to create an atmosphere of cooperative problem-solving focused on Iowa’s water quality crisis.

John Wills, Greg Drees and countless volunteers sought to continue the momentum in 2017 with both the Prairie Lakes Conference and the Blue Water Festival. Professionals, students, farmers and interested members of the public were invited to attend to learn about soil health, water quality and the connections between the two. Presentations and demonstrations were used to educate people on current threats, but also ways to respond and protect our most valuable resources in a world that often doesn’t seem to care.

As with all things water in the Iowa Great Lakes area, many groups came together in a spirit of shared concern. The OPA, Dickinson County Conservation Board, the Dickinson County Soil & Water Conservation District, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Lakeside Lab, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and a variety of Iowa Great Lakes organizations participated in this premier conference.

I have been very honored to be invited to speak at the first two conferences and emphasize a theme about interconnectivity of soil, air and water systems. I am positive that water quality and climate change issues can be solved with the application of known best practices along with added economic value from renewable energy, recreation and soil carbon sequestration. Solving Iowa’s water and soil erosion issues will be key elements to the economic stability of Iowa’s future. Rewarding good stewardship and reimagining the rural landscape should lead the way.

Still lots of work to do

We have pushed the boundaries of industrial agriculture and squeezed profits for producers to the point where margins are slim. This has all happened while developing over 98 percent of the state’s overall land. There are few natural features left and public lands are fragmented, even at a time when the public seems to be demanding cleaner water and more recreational opportunities to utilize the outdoors. In other words, the current system is maxed out and it is time to dial it back a little.

Our lakes offer a quantifiable economic value. In a county of some 17,000 people we have an outdoor recreation economy that generates around $300 million yearly. In Iowa, the number is nearly $9 billion while providing 83,000 jobs statewide. These are impressive numbers considering the state has very little public land, and clean water, available for this industry to continue to develop.

Kids need a healthy outdoor environment available to them to play, explore and learn about the natural world. Young adults are demanding more recreational opportunities in the state and this is a factor when searching for a job and career. As we know, many younger Iowans just get their education and leave the state.

It is important to remind our elected officials that protecting public land and water resources is not only good for our natural heritage but great for Iowa’s economy. It’s quantifiable. Across Iowa, and the nation, a disturbing trend is developing to roll back available public lands and allow private development to occur, to make the land “more productive.” This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing as an advanced society.

I would suggest the state of Iowa take a look at implementing the Dickinson County model. Here we clearly see the link between high quality natural resources and a strong local economy. It’s balanced. It’s also good for our climate. Undisturbed land, water and natural grasses sequester carbon. If we can identify important areas within watersheds across the state, we can add back natural features into the landscape, enhance water quality and more recreation follows. Finding pathways to incentivize the agriculture community is critical to this process. As citizens, we need to help farmers add value to an agricultural economy that has hit the boundaries of growth at the expense of our natural resources.

Water quality and its importance should be celebrated. Scientists are just beginning to unlock the secrets of the intricate connections between our atmosphere, soil and water resources. Recent findings demonstrate that ill health of one system creates systemic failures to the others. Sustainability will require an integrated approach to problem solving. For instance, tackling our water quality challenges will mean dealing with climate change issues at the same time. The solutions involve similar technical implementations.

The prairie lakes region is the perfect place to begin solving many environmental challenges. The Iowa Great Lakes water quality community can provide a working model on how to move forward into a more healthy and sustainable future for new generations to come.

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