CEDAR RAPIDS — Recurring flooding and water quality woes that have hampered rivers around Iowa and beyond prompted Cedar Rapids to take a different approach to the Cedar River.
Rather than only invest in water treatment and flood protection locally — which Cedar Rapids has done — Iowa’s second largest city also sent hundreds of thousands of dollars miles upstream, in hopes of inspiring better conservation practices so the water volume is more manageable and cleaner when it gets there.
“One message we believe in and took to the meetings was, we in Cedar Rapids are with you in this watershed,” said Mike Kuntz, Cedar Rapids utilities environmental manager. “We live here, and a big chunk of our economy depends on you, so we are in this together.”
Cedar Rapids has taken the lead role in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which was established with 16 partners, such as conservation groups, smaller watershed authorities, state agencies and farming associations, in June 2015 and continues through next June when funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program expires.
The partnership focuses on managing water quantity — both too much and too little — and improving water quality and soil health on 135,000 acres of the Middle Cedar River watershed in Black Hawk, Benton and Tama counties. It is only a portion of the Middle Cedar watershed, which is 1.5 million acres.
Numerous watersheds contribute to the 338-mile-long Cedar River, which starts in Dodge County, Minnesota, 90 miles south of Minneapolis and passes through Charles City, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids before ending at the confluence with the Iowa River in Columbus Junction.
In contrast to a lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works against upstream drainage districts, which was dismissed, the partnership aligns urban dwellers and rural farmers as part of the same community — united by a watershed.
“I am glad to be in a watershed where it is collaborative and not throwing lawsuits around,” said Blake Hollis of Lanehaven Farms outside Waterloo, who has been engaged in the partnership. “It is more effective.”
Hollis is part of the 42,000-acre Miller Creek watershed, which flows into the Cedar and is part of the Middle Cedar watershed. The Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project is one of the partners in the project.
He installed a bioreactor, a 40-foot by 40-foot, 5-foot-deep pit filled with wood chips to denitrify drainage from a 78-acre field before reaching Miller Creek. He also uses cover crops to improve soil health and is exploring a saturated buffer, in which drainage is slowed in field buffers to help remove nitrates.
He receives data reports showing practices are effective at reducing nitrates, but they are also expensive for farmers such as Hollis trying to make a living.
A bioreactor can cost $12,000 to $16,000, cover crops can cost $30 an acre and a saturated buffer can cost $5,000 to $7,000, said Clark Porter, Miller Creek watershed coordinator and an environmental specialist for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Through the partnership and other funding sources, farmers can recoup at least 75 percent of the cost and potentially more with other grants, Porter said.
In the Miller Creek watershed, Porter reports installation of two bioreactors, two wetlands and three saturated buffers, along with 17 percent of lands enrolled in cover crop programs.
Porter said the partnership has changed “behavior and perception and developed a sense of community around a watershed.”
“So many things we identify with a county or city or fence row,” Porter said. “They all have lines and borders. A watershed flows underneath and through all of that. It is a different way of thinking that government entities so far don’t really recognize.”
Hollis thinks it is early to judge the impact, but he believes “we are moving the needle a little bit.”
“Ten years ago if you came to talk about downstream runoff, I would have been a deer in the headlights,” he said. “Today, I understand management practices and what the impacts are. I am more aware of my footprint.”
Cedar Rapids has invested $303,343 over five years in the partnership including outreach, education and water quality analysis. Improving water quality upstream also could help put off expensive upgrades to the city’s water pollution plant, if discharge limits grow stronger.
Other partners have contributed a combined $1.3 million. Another $1.6 million has come through the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. In total, the partnership could provide $4.3 million in financial and technical assistance over its life span.
Nick Meier, a farmer in La Porte City, has received grant support in converting 5 acres to wetlands, and has installed a denitrifying bioreactor and cover crops.
“The water sampling coming out of the bioreactor has been very low — .3 part per million .4 ppm, .5 ppm,” Meier said, noting the water going in had been testing at 13 to 15 ppm. “It’s working.”
Nitrate in drinking water at levels above 10 ppm is a potential health risk for infants less than 6 months of age, according to a Cedar Rapids water quality report.
“If we don’t start to do it, we’ll get regulated and we don’t want that,” Meier said.
Cedar Rapids was recognized nationally in September with a U.S. Water Prize award for public sector leadership in changing how water is viewed, valued and managed.
“There’s not a lot of good examples across the country, so it is pretty unique,” said Roger Wolf, Iowa Soybean Association environmental programs and services director and a board member for the U.S. Water Alliance. “It is kind of a big deal to get that national recognition. The thing that makes the Cedar partnership work is there is value for the downstream stakeholders and upstream stakeholders.”
At this point, any results are small-scale. But the bigger wins have been strides in adoption of conservation practices, more awareness of the issues and establishing examples for others to learn from, city officials and other partners said.
Since it launched, the partnership overall has entered into 54 contracts with farmers and landowners to implement preferred conservation practices, according to a Cedar Rapids Middle Cedar report.
As the partnership nears its end next spring, though, some wonder what is next and whether progress will halt.
“Does it all evaporate when the funding dries up?” Hollis wondered.
Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utility director, said the city is preparing an application next month for support from the next round of Regional Conservation Partnership Program dollars to continue its watershed approach, although with a different geographic area. Larry Weber, the Edwin B. Green Chair in Hydraulics at the University of Iowa and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center in 2009, said Cedar Rapids was one of the first to pioneer the watershed partnership model, and now a number of others, particularly in Iowa, are doing so aided by a $97 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2016 award to Iowa as part of the National Disaster Resilience Competition to accelerate flood reduction and water quality efforts over five years.
“Where Cedar Rapids was ahead was the regional conservation planning and putting money into practices upstream,” Weber said.
Iowa’s watershed-centric approach is unique nationally, attracting contingents from North Carolina to Cedar Rapids in September and officials from Texas are expected in January to examine “how does this work and what does good look like,” Weber said.
Work remains in developing systems to measure results, and getting greater buy-in from the broader agricultural community, despite several positive examples of participation, he said.
Each of Iowa’s 1,600 watersheds need $3 million to reduce flood damage and improve water quality — or nearly $5 billion in all.
Weber advocates discontinuing farming on the 276,000 acres of Iowa cropland that are in a 2-year flood plain, and funding Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy, a voter-approved but unfunded Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation trust fund.