One Water, One Future

Taking a New Look at Protecting Iowa’s Water Quality   

By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Water isn’t always a hot topic of conversation, until there’s a problem, like the massive water main break in early August that flooded portions of downtown Des Moines.

Dozens of Downtown Farmers’ Market vendors and patrons were forced to evacuate due to the water main break near 4th and Walnut Street. According to witness accounts, the water was curb deep in some areas. Portions of the Court Avenue District were closed off the public as crews worked to address the situation.

The water main broke again several days later as crews were working to repair this infrastructure, which is more than 100 years old. The crisis generated news headlines for days and focused many Iowans’ attention on water.

  The One Water Summit was made up of rural and urban delegations of farmers, government officials, community organizers, environmentalists, staff members at non-profit organizations, academics, media and more. Photo credit: Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

The One Water Summit was made up of rural and urban delegations of farmers, government officials, community organizers, environmentalists, staff members at non-profit organizations, academics, media and more. Photo credit: Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

The crisis also brought home the message that was repeated over and over a month earlier at the One Water Summit in Minneapolis — water is life. Iowa farmers, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) staff members and other Iowa leaders joined more than 900 attendees nationwide for the One Water Summit, an annual conference that promotes a secure water future across America.

“Water connects all of us, and that’s a core belief we have at the Iowa Water Center (IWC),” says Melissa Miller, associate director of the IWC at Iowa State University who attended the One Water Summit. The IWC is part of a nationwide network of university-based water centers that support interdisciplinary water research, education and outreach to ensure research results are applied to real-world problems.

“I was interested in participating in the topics at the One Water conference so we can bring back this information to expand and continue the conversation,” Miller adds.

What does the public think about water quality?

If you’re like many people, you may not give much thought to where your drinking water comes from.

“More than half (54 percent) of people we polled have no idea where their water comes from,” says David Metz, president of FM3 Research, which conducts public policy-oriented opinion research and presented this information at the One Water Conference. “Another 23 percent guessed wrong, and only 23 percent knew the correct answer.”

The correct answer can vary, depending on where you live. On a farm, for example, drinking water often comes from a well dug on the farm property. In a city, water may come from a nearby river or other water source and is supplied by a municipal water service.

Water-related issues ranked among the top five of American’s worst fears in 2017, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which provides an in-depth examination into the fears of average Americans. In May of 2017, a random sample of 1,207 adults from across the U.S. were asked their level of fear about 80 different fears across a huge variety of topics, from crime to the government to the environment.

Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes came in at number three on the Top 10 list, with 53.1 percent of survey respondents citing this as a top fear. Pollution of drinking water was number four, with 50.4 percent of respondents citing this concern.

These water quality issues trailed far behind corrupt government officials, which Americans cited as their number-one fear (74.5 percent), followed by healthcare costs (55.3 percent).

Water quality, water infrastructure, and other timely topics were top-of-mind at the One Water Summit, which included rural and urban delegations of farmers, government officials, community organizers, environmentalists, staff members at non-profit organizations, academics, media and more.

Addressing concerns about water quality issues requires collaboration among a wide variety of groups, from rural to urban, notes Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for ISA. “We want science to guide water quality practices and help ensure sustainability, productivity and profitability,” says Wolf, who spoke at the One Water Summit. 

  Farmers use a variety of on-farm options to help protect water quality. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Farmers use a variety of on-farm options to help protect water quality. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Building productive ag-municipal partnerships starts by sharing stories of how farmers are incorporating conservation and water sustainability into their farming practices. Some on-farm options that help protect water quality including grass buffers along streams, wetlands and cover crops, which help hold soil and nutrients like phosphorus on the land.

"Within our family, we constantly remind ourselves we are tasked to leave the land in a better state than we received it,” says Dave Walton, an ISA director who farms near Wilton in eastern Iowa and spoke at the One Water Summit.  

Speaking the Language of Water Quality

How can people, both rural and urban, who care about water quality reach a wider audience? Start with the why.

“Why are you motivated to focus on water quality? Determine your why, think about what audiences you need to persuade and think of people you can engage with to help spread your message,” says Abby Gardner, communications adviser for the Value of Water Campaign and the U.S. Water Alliance.

 Also, use the “message triangle” framework to organize your message and help communicate a more effective story that resonates with audiences.

"At the core of the triangle is your main focus, which in this case is the idea that water is essential to everything we do,” Gardener says.

Around this core are the three points of the triangle, including the problem, solutions and the payoff. Problems like water quality can range from nitrate levels to aging water infrastructure. After identifying the problem and detailing solutions, don’t forget to tell people about the payoff. “In this case, the payoff is clean, safe water for generations to come,” Gardener says.

Taking the long view is second nature to farmers like Mark Jackson, a past president of ISA who farms near Rose Hill in Mahaska County. He honors the generations who went before him and looks to the future as his son, Mike, and grandchildren live and work on the farm.

“My family’s legacy in agriculture is generations deep,” says Jackson, who attended the One Water conference. “Farmers need to be at the table at events like the One Water Summit when conversations about water quality take place. If we work together, the opportunities for future generations are boundless.”