Tap a regional fund for water quality

Hannah Inman | Executive Director, Great Outdoors Foundation

The Idea: Form a regional fund and plan for Central Iowa to work together to take on water quality issues, stormwater management, and park and trail planning.

We all care about water quality. That’s why it has been a major topic of discussion in Iowa for years. Yet progress has been slow, coming a few drops at a time. It’s time to turn on the spigot full blast and take action to make a real difference in water quality.

Our inaction has real impacts. According to the Iowa Environmental Council, half of the waters tested in Iowa are impaired. This costs cities money in cleaning drinking water, prevents businesses from fully realizing the economic gains of healthy waters, and denies our children healthy waters to recreate in. At the same time, budgets for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local parks and recreation departments have been severely slashed and starved for many years.

We can do much better. It’s time to take a new approach – a strategic, targeted, funded, realistic approach. We must form a regional fund for Central Iowa to work together to take on water quality issues. This fund will provide: a focused plan with aligned goals to increase water quality; sustainable, consistent funding independent of political whims; grants for outdoor recreation projects that address water quality, stormwater management and access to healthy spaces.

Why must we work as a region? Because clean water doesn’t start at the plant. We know the sources of our most polluted stormwater. We know how to improve water quality by reducing runoff and pollutants into our water sources. Cities such as Des Moines and Clive are too far down the funnel of floodwater to address the problem alone. We must also invest upstream, with wetland protections and water retention basins.

With the western suburbs of Des Moines developing at a rate of 400 acres per year, this problem will only continue to worsen. We can address the increasing need for regional stormwater management while also proactively planning for parks and trails, honoring best practices for land management and water quality.

Projects that could be funded to improve water quality would provide the following: watershed protection (watersheds are the areas of land that separate waters flowing to different bodies of water); stream bank, wetland or habitat restoration; flood buyouts; water-based education and awareness; and projects modeling applications of clean water best practices.

To balance nature, development and water quality, these funds would be distributed through a nonprofit through grants for regional projects. Funding would be accomplished without depending on tightening government budgets. For instance, a real estate tax transfer or utility fee would provide a sustainable, reliable source of funding.

Water management authorities would design a plan that layers water quality improvements, stormwater management, and park and trail planning. Working with nonprofits and local jurisdictions, the funds would leverage other public and private funds and grants, increasing the impact beyond what the original investment would be.

This single plan would provide multiple benefits, including increased drinking water quality, more and safer recreation opportunities, better stormwater management, increased quality of life as our region grows, increased property values, greater flood resiliency for the region, increased tourism, and increased economic development.

While the health and quality of life issues associated with water are easily apparent, more recently business leaders have championed increased water quality as an economic and workforce issue, too. With unemployment inching toward its lowest level in nearly 50 years, workforce shortages are being felt even more acutely in Iowa, due to one of the lowest jobless rates in the country. With highly coveted young workers able to find employment most anywhere in the U.S., clean water for quality of life and recreation opportunities becomes a factor in attracting and retaining workers to Central Iowa.

Imagine how much more of an impact we will have when we align and focus all of our resources, goals and vision. It is time to try something new. We must act as a region and create our own solution to water quality. Think of the story we will tell when we change our water quality through our own innovation. >