Intern Experience: Why Water Quality?

by Cody Smith

Often times the subject of water quality can make Iowans, especially in today’s contentious times, turn up their nose in either disinterest or disagreement. As a student at Iowa State University and an intern for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative, I often find myself injecting the topic into discussions with friends, family, and colleagues to gauge the different reactions. I find it interesting that many make the decision to focus on the negatives and not on the positives.  Focusing solely on the problems and ignoring all progress, factors, and developments will never lead to an effective solution.  Individuals who realize that we have a problem, myself included, often get frustrated when results aren’t attained immediately. While speed and efficiency are important, it’s crucial to look at things in a realistic light. This may be accomplished by taking a look at other locations around the globe. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to the Republic of Panama through a travel course with the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The title of the course was, “Managing Agricultural Landscapes for the Conservation of Natural Resources.”  As my first trip abroad, I was fascinated by the different culture, language, and geography the country had to offer. The first stop of our trip was Panama City, Panama.  The city was breathtaking with all of its sky-high apartment buildings, scenic views of the ocean, and vast markets where people buzzed around speaking different languages and offering a wide variety of products. These people, although different in several ways, still grapple with several of the same issues that we do and water quality was definitely no exception. 

As we boarded the bus for our tour of the city, I couldn’t contain my excitement. We had already seen the beach, the markets, and the skyscrapers, what was next? As we were slowly rolling down the elevated highway, I noticed a dilapidated building to my left. Coming to a stop in traffic, my eyes began to investigate further. I took mental notes of the shattered windows and crumbling foundation, and eventually my eyes came to rest on the small river several feet below. At first I only noticed the woman and her children downstream washing their clothes and swimming in the water.  What I saw next gave me mixed emotions. Approximately fifty yards upstream from the family, there was a mess of pipes. As I gazed harder, I leaned my head out the window of the tour bus only to be greeted with a crippling smell. It was the smell of raw sewage. 

There are few moments in life where something you have seen makes you reevaluate your entire list of priorities and problems; this was one of those times. I felt sick. I felt sad. I felt sympathetic. However, above all, I felt grateful. I felt grateful for the life I had been blessed with and the resources that I have always taken for granted, like clean water. We often get so involved in our lives with our education, our jobs, and our families that we forget to be thankful for the one resource that gives us everything: water.

Now, as much as I hate to do this to you, it’s time to return to Iowa. We know that excess nutrients in our waters are a problem, no doubt. However, safe, affordable, drinkable water is not. In our lives of luxury, we have forgotten that billions of people around the world can’t access the same resources that we take for granted every day. In this same sense, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards in order to serve as a model for those who wish to achieve the ultimate goal of clean water. This leads us back to the debate, how do we do it? 

Throughout history, sustainable and desired results have always been achieved through cooperation, inclusion, and research. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy tells us how to get where want and what is required to do so. Yes, it is voluntary, but yes, it is also a civil duty. Our federal, state, and local government all share the responsibility to protect the security and health of all Americans and they are doing what they can with what they are given. With countless initiatives, partnerships, and conservation programs, the government is providing as many resources as it can. It now lies on us, the citizens of the state, to do our part in fixing our water quality issues. If you’re a farmer, try cover crops or edge-of-field practices for the first time. If you’re an urban resident, try to go through spring without applying fertilizer to your lawn. If we don’t take a stand and do our part, the courts will decide it for us. Ask yourselves, is that the type of future we want for Iowa?