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A first-of-its-kind agreement has been reached to allow Iowa municipalities to address water quality by working with farmers.

On Monday, April 6, the Dubuque City Council approved an agreement between the City of Dubuque and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The agreement, negotiated by an agricultural conservation group, allows Dubuque to meet certain State of Iowa water quality requirements by working with farmers located within the Apple-Plum, Grant-Little Maquoketa, and Maquoketa River watersheds. 

“This is a big deal for Iowa’s cities, big and small,” said Robert Palmer, general counsel for the Iowa League of Cities.

The agreement, establishing the first use of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Exchange, provides a pathway for municipalities to address water quality requirements by working with farmers to implement farm conservation practices to reduce erosion and farm nutrient runoff. This cost- effective approach of financing farm conservation work offers another way to address water quality beyond expensive upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants.

“Projects like these provide multiple layers of value to the environment and ratepayers,” Palmer added, referring to the many environmental and economic benefits to the community.

“Water quality is a shared responsibility between urban and rural stakeholders,” said Kevin McAleese, president of the Sand County Foundation, the agricultural conservation non-profit that negotiated the agreement. “This opens the door to cooperation across a watershed, and for more urban-rural partnerships across Iowa.”

“Having an agreement in place that makes economic sense for the farmer, city and county will really help move the needle as it relates to both water quality and quantity (flooding),” said Eric Schmechel, Dubuque County’s Watershed Program Director. 

Dr. Tim Male, who leads the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, said the agreement marks a new opportunity for more investment in rural communities. 

“States should set water quality goals and allow cities to be creative in how they achieve them,” said Male. “This agreement, and others to follow, will allow Iowa cities to do just that.”

Research from the University of Iowa shows that the nitrate load that Iowa contributes to the Upper Mississippi River Basin is increasing compared to other states. 

Dubuque Mayor Roy D. Buol said, “I would like to recognize the work of the Catfish Creek Watershed Management Authority, Dubuque Soil and Water Conservation District, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Sand County Foundation for all the work that has gone into the City Council’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This MOU makes real the first nutrient exchange pilot in the State of Iowa. The important national work of reducing nutrient runoff begins in our backyard.”

According to Mayor Buol, this MOU is tangible proof that the City of Dubuque in partnership with the State of Iowa and Dubuque County is committed to working together towards a common goal: to protect water, conserve valuable farmland, and reduce nutrient runoff. Conservation practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, and are implemented in Dubuque County through this partnership, will now be eligible as a credit for Dubuque’s water treatment plant.  

“Having clean drinking water for ourselves, and for neighbors up and down the Mississippi River, means we have to think about the health of the whole river system. Expanding conservation to improve water quality is good for farmers, for the people of Dubuque, and also for the communities and environment all the way downstream,” said Amy Saltzman, program officer at the Walton Family Foundation, which supported the project.

Mayor Buol concluded, “This is an excellent example of creating a more sustainable and resilient future for generations to come.”

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