Real water quality progress should be measured by outcomes
A recent editorial published by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig (June 1) touted water quality progress as Iowa enters the second decade of its Nutrient Reduction Strategy. For decades, the agricultural community has discussed conservation in terms of activities, not outcomes, and this editorial was no different. I cannot recall the last time a farmer spoke to me about the number of seeds that were planted (an activity), but we regularly hear about yields (outcomes). Farmers aren’t alone here, I also have never heard an angler tell me how many times they cast a line (activity), but they usually know how many fish they caught (outcome). It rings hollow that Iowans continue to hear only about acres of cover crops and “more saturated buffers and bioreactors” — only activities and never outcomes. Iowans are told this work is making a difference, but all we have been shown is counts of activities, never an accounting of outcomes. Yield is an outcome, but so are pounds of nitrogen sent downstream, tons of soil lost per acre of crop ground, and tons of soil eroded away from streambanks. Real progress in water quality will be shown in outcomes like reduced nitrate, phosphate and turbidity in our rivers and streams, followed by clean stream bottoms and more/healthier fish and aquatic communities. Just before Iowa became a state, in 1836, Albert Lea said the following about Iowa “In every part of this whole District, beautiful rivers and creeks are to be found, whose transparent waters are perpetually renewed, by the springs from which they flow” and “of Fish there can never be any scarcity. Every stream is filled with them.” Our water was not always brown, and our stream bottoms have rocks underneath that mud. Real progress is measured via outcomes in the water.