CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Cedar Rapids has reached an innovative agreement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that allows an investment in conservation practices on farms to improve water quality and help the city’s water treatment plant meet state water quality goals.
Cedar Rapids became Iowa’s second community to sign such an agreement. The City of Dubuque reached a similar agreement in April.
Sand County Foundation, a national agricultural conservation non-profit, worked closely with municipalities and the Iowa DNR to develop a model agreement that incentivizes cities and farmers within the same watersheds to address water quality together.
“These first agreements are providing a roadmap 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,” explained Bartlett Durand, an attorney with Sand County Foundation and the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
“This cost-effective approach of financing farm conservation work offers another way to improve the quality of rivers, lakes and streams, in place of expensive upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants,” Durand said. “This opens the door to cooperation across a watershed, and for more urban-rural partnerships across Iowa.”
The Cedar Rapids agreement allows the city to invest in practices such as cover crops on farms in the Cedar River and Middle Iowa River 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,” said Mike Kuntz, Utilities Environmental Manager for the City of Cedar Rapids.
“City of Cedar Rapids leaders recognize weather patterns are changing in Iowa and across the Midwest resulting in more frequent flooding events. The practices that we are advocating for to reduce nutrients also have benefits for infiltrating and holding water in the soil,” Kuntz added.
The state requires Cedar Rapids and about 100 other communities to reduce nitrogen levels by 66 percent and phosphorus levels by 75 percent at their wastewater treatment plants. Timetables to accomplish this varies by community.
The 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. Research from the University of Iowa shows that Iowa’s contribution to this problem is increasing compared to other states.
Durand said communities like Cedar Rapids could see a $10 match in public and private grants for every $1 they invest in conservation practices.
Robert Palmer, general counsel for the Iowa League of Cities, said, “This is a big deal for Iowa’s cities, big and small,” when the Department of Natural Resources 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 added.
— Sand County Foundation
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