Raccoon River Watershed cautiously optimistic

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

After 13 years of service, the Raccoon River Watershed Association is glad to see greater awareness for stewardship of Iowa’s natural resources, but concerned about continued funding to secure stewardship goals.

“We try to be a voice of reason, a friend of nature,” said President Steve Roe.

What started as an organized group for recreation has evolved towards helping to shape financial resources and state policy to ensure a clean earth is here for future generations to enjoy.

“Our political impact is our membership,” Roe said. “We do think we make a difference.”

Since they started, social media has become dominant feature for organizations. With nearly 600 avid followers on their Facebook page alone, they’re seeing northwestern Iowans take a renewed interest in the stake they have in their local environment.

With more interest via new channels, they’re finding a larger impact with their regular sponsorships of nature research each year, in addition to their annual conferences with keynote speakers on topics like regenerative farming and locally sourced food.

“We’re very concerned that all forms of agriculture can be productive and efficient, with little impact on the environment and improving the soils,” said Roe. “It’s not the old two-crop and manure rotation that made it rich.”

In its early years, the association was all river cleanup and recreation, but since it has evolved, it likes to connect people involved in a wide range of environmental and governmental organizations to keep everyone out of silos. Soil and water commissioners, county supervisors, Department of Natural Resources employees and the Iowa Department of Agriculture all play a role in bridging the local to the statewide initiatives to keep stewardship progress on track.

“Everybody is downstream from somewhere, so we’ve all got to be good stewards,” Roe said.

Though anecdotal, their members are seeing changes that concern them.

Monarch butterflies are showing up in much smaller numbers than before, even with healthy patches of milkweed available to them. Migratory birds are getting here earlier and ranging further north, subjected to the risks of increasingly finicky weather patterns early in the spring.

A windshield that might have been obliterated by bugs on a road trip through Iowa now fares pretty clean on a trip to Des Moines.

And the water quality? “It’s not getting any better, really,” said the president. “We’re definitely not putting enough money towards it as a state.”

The hardest part, he says, it that most plans require cash input from ag producers—which means you have to be turning a profit, something else that’s getting thinner and thinner for farmers.

Raw numbers show tile installation is more profitable than cover crops, Roe said. “But long term, what will the quality of the land be 50 years from now?” It’s a question farmers all over Iowa struggle with as they balance being good stewards with being able to survive financially—no matter how much they care about the earth they till.

“You go broke if you’re not careful,” he empathized.

But with some big problems continuing to face ag production and environmental protection, the need for change isn’t going away, particularly as farming and land ownership becomes more consolidated.

“We’ve got some big problems. It’s gonna take some pretty big-sized dollars.”

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