Mary Beth Stevenson
What are you doing to practice and promote soil and water quality?
I work for the City of Cedar Rapids Utilities Department as the Watersheds & Source Water Program Manager. Unlike most other city staff members, most of my time is spent thinking about what is going on outside of city limits, on farmland upstream of us in the Cedar River Watershed. Working at the watershed scale is essential for us in Cedar Rapids. We face challenges with steadily rising nitrates in the Cedar River that threaten our drinking water supply. And we believe that proactively partnering with farmers throughout the Cedar River Watershed is essential to protecting our drinking water supply in the long term. Strategic partnerships are the backbone of our efforts to partner with farmers in the Cedar River Watershed. For example, City of Cedar Rapids is the lead partner on the Cedar River Source Water Partnership. This partnership will target federal, state, and local funds to areas in the Cedar River Watershed where drinking water is threatened by growing nitrates. Our partnership was recently awarded funds from the USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program to support our work engaging farmers and agricultural stakeholders. We are in the early stages of building a new partnership with ag retail to broaden our reach to new farmer audiences. This is an innovative partnership, in which Cedar Rapids is financially supporting the efforts of ag retailers to fold in conservation technical assistance into their scope of agronomy services. There is a strong mutual benefit to this new partnership, and we believe it will launch a new wave of conservation practice adoption that will have far-reaching benefits for soil and water quality.
What is being done in your county to support soil and water quality?
Farmers in Linn County are very actively engaging in soil and water quality improvement practices. The City of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are both active participants in 3 Watershed Management Authorities: Indian Creek WMA, Middle Cedar WMA, and Lower Cedar WMA. The Indian Creek WMA has employed a Soil Health Coordinator, whose position is through Linn County. The Middle Cedar WMA recently wrapped up the Iowa Watershed Approach, allocating millions of dollars to building wetlands and other water quality practices in the watershed. The Lower Cedar WMA just finalized a watershed management plan, and contracted with Heartland Coop for an innovative partnership to deliver watershed coordination services through a conservation agronomy lens. The Linn County Conservation Board is a partner in the Cedar River Source Water Partnership, and is investing in wetlands restoration and enhancement. In the Morgan Creek Watershed region of Linn County, farmers have been reaching out to us about how they and their neighbors can be more actively involved in the Cedar River Source Water Partnership. City of Cedar Rapids is serving as the fiscal agent for a Batch & Build project focused on the Middle Cedar (Cedar River Clean Water Partnership).
What could be done with more public funding for soil and water quality?
Public funding could be used to hire additional technical staff to support farmers in adopting new conservation practices. It is very evident across our region that in subwatersheds where a watershed coordinator is actively working, rates of conservation practice adoption are notably higher than in surrounding areas. Many of our conservation practices have not been normalized in farming culture. A fully-funded public relations and/or marketing campaign should be launched that helps to elevate public awareness about the types of practices that are most effective. Different messages and strategies should be developed based on the segment of the population. The key is for the message to be appropriate and fully integrated across different media platforms so it gets in front of many different audiences. Identify the barriers to conservation practice adoption. Conduct a system-wide analysis of how to remove the barriers. Systematically fund solutions to streamlining adoption. The Batch & Build concept is a perfect example of how removing barriers led to an explosion in adoption rates. Offer (forgivable?) business loans that incentive innovative approaches to supporting conservation practice adoption. It could be set up as a revolving loan fund. Helping to provide upfront capital costs might lead to advances in custom farming services, for example, that could lead to more cover crop adoption or more edge of field practices being built.