Soil, water, and the future of conservation came together in Des Moines this summer at the Izaak Walton League’s 2019 national convention. It’s the one time each year that Ikes from across the country gather to learn from our speakers — and one another. It’s also a lot of fun!
Following are some convention highlights. You can find more speaker presentations and videos at iwla.org/convention.
We’ve Got To Stop Kidding Ourselves: How We Use The Land Has Consequences
How we use the land – from agriculture to suburban development – is harming the streams and rivers that provide our drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and places for outdoor recreation. Our panel of experts discussed where we’re falling short and what that means for public health and our communities.
Dr. Jerry Hatfield, Director of the National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, talked about the state of America’s agriculture system. “We are in a crisis mode relative to our soils and water quality,” Hatfield told the crowd, stating that if we don’t move away from a farm system dominated by monocultures of corn and soybeans, soil health will continue to degrade, further increasing farmers’ reliance on inputs (e.g., fertilizers) and crop vulnerability to weather variations.
Hatfield pointed to the shift of America’s “corn and soybean belt” from Illinois and Iowa into North Dakota and South Dakota. Eighty percent of the three eastern cropping districts in North and South Dakota are now covered in corn and soybeans – pushing out wheat, sugar beets, sunflowers, and other crops. “A lot of people refer to this as the ‘Iowa-fication’ of the cropping systems,” Hatfield said. “But it comes at a cost.” Major rivers in the eastern Dakotas are now flashier – prone to high peak flows and low base flows plus high concentrations of pollutants – and carry higher sediment loads than before the crop shift. Pollinator populations in the Dakotas have dropped 60%.
We’re talking about real economic loss when we start thinking about the impact of soil and the impact of having nutrients move away from that soil.-Dr. Jerry Hatfield
An almost exclusive focus on corn and soybeans not only damages soil health, it can hurt farmers’ bottom lines. The “yield gap,” Hatfield explained, is the difference between how many bushels per acre farms are producing and how many they could produce with healthy soils that can store water and produce the nutrients needed to sustain crops. In 2012, the yield gap in Iowa cost the state $7 billion. “We’re talking about real economic loss when we start thinking about the impact of soil and the impact of having nutrients move away from that soil.”
So how do we fix our soil and improve crop production? “We have to get away from the two-crop rotation system. We’ve got to reduce our tillage. We’ve got to put a value on the soil,” Hatfield said, adding that improvements in soil health can start to happen in just one or two growing seasons.
Dr. David Cwiertny, Director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, explored the gap between scientific advances and regulations that are supposed to protect human health.
“Our understanding of what is ‘safe’ is evolving very rapidly – often times at a pace that far exceeds what we’re able to do from a regulatory standpoint,” Cwiertny said. One example of how this leaves the public vulnerable is the regulation of nitrates in drinking water.
Nitrogen is a nutrient critical to plant growth and the main component in many fertilizers and manure used as fertilizer. However, the nitrogen not used by plants can convert into nitrate and run off into surface waters or be absorbed into groundwater supplies. There is growing concern about the impacts of these nitrates on human health.
The current limit for nitrates is 10 mg/L. This limit was set decades ago to protect infants from “blue baby syndrome” caused by lack of oxygen in the bloodstream – a potentially fatal condition. (Nitrates interfere with how oxygen is transported through the body.)
Cwiertny and his team looked at other health impacts of nitrates. “We’re finding associations with things like colorectal cancer, thyroid disorders, birth defects – and often times at exposure levels that are well below the drinking water limit of 10 mg/L,” Cwiertny explained. “This is one of those examples where the science is far outpacing current regulation. People are living longer and we have to worry about chronic exposure.”
What does the data show? Above 5 mg/L of nitrates in drinking water – that’s half the current standard – researchers are finding correlations with bladder cancer. At even lower levels of nitrates, there are correlations with ovarian cancer and reproductive health.
When you think about the healthcare costs, the sick days, the lost work – there are real costs associated with not taking action.-Dr. David Cwiertny
“This is not a trivial problem,” Cwiertny said. “If you look at the Safe Drinking Water Act data collected by community water systems, about 800,000 Iowans are drinking water above 5 mg/L of nitrates each year – often routinely between March and July. When you think about the healthcare costs, the sick days, the lost work – there are real costs associated with not taking action.”
Pesticides are a similar area of concern. “There’s very little known about the human health impacts of pesticides in drinking water because they were registered and on the market before we had fully investigated them,” Cwiertny explained. That’s the case with chlorpyrifos, an insecticide registered in 1965 that researchers realized decades later was a neurotoxin that affects the developing brains of children.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health assessment for chlorpyrifos says there are no safe residual levels of chlorpyrifos in food and there is no safe level of exposure in drinking water.
The chemical was banned for household use – but is still being used in agriculture. “This is where the science got into odds with the policies,” said Cwiertny. “EPA announced this July that it would not ban chlorpyrifos for agricultural use. The evidence is sound and clear, but politics will not allow change to happen.”
Professor Neil Hamilton, former Director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, explained that we have the tools to protect water quality, improve soil health, and support more profitable and sustainable farming – if we choose to use them.
The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit changed the debate about water quality in Iowa and across the country, Hamilton said. The utility filed a lawsuit in 2015 against drainage districts in three Iowa counties, claiming that farm drainage tiles (as shown in this photo) were bypassing natural conditions that would keep nitrates out of streams and rivers. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the utility announced in 2017 that it needed to double the size of its nitrate removal facility to handle the growing levels of pollution in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers.
The lawsuit “raised Clean Water Act issues that some people felt were unfair or unsettled, the most significant of which is whether the water flowing from tile outlets might be a point source and subject to some type of regulation,” Hamilton explained. “The case made clear how ineffective the Clean Water Act is in addressing water pollution from agriculture.”
It's not that we don't know how to deal with soil conservation. If we wanted to, we could protect our water, improve our soil, and support more profitable, sustainable farming.-Professor Neil Hamilton
He cited the need for more effective public policy to address the causes of water pollution. “Most if not all the incentives in our system are designed towards production, whereas there are very few incentives for conservation. It’s not that we don’t know how to deal with soil conservation. If we wanted to, we could protect our water, improve our soil, and support more profitable, sustainable farming.”
So how do we get there? Hamilton suggested a concept called “watershed citizenship.”
“Most people could draw the boundary of their school district or their county, but I don’t imagine many could draw the boundary of the watershed you live in. But we have perhaps more direct impact on the people in our watersheds.” Hamilton urged people to start thinking about their actions in terms of the impact on people and resources in their watersheds.
Looking forward, he said, we all have a role to play in supporting federal programs and more progressive state laws that support improved soil health and water quality.
Change Is Good For Our Water, Health, and Communities
Polluted runoff threatens public health and America’s streams, rivers, and lakes. This speaker panel discussed the role that landowners and volunteers can play in improving water quality.
Dr. Mary Skopec is Executive Director of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and works with volunteers who monitor water quality in Iowa’s “Great Lakes” and throughout Iowa. She previously oversaw IOWATER – a stream monitoring program that was funded by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and was loosely based on the League’s Save Our Streams protocol.
The question always comes up: Do citizens produce good data? I can tell you without a doubt that they do.-Dr. Mary Skopec
“The question always comes up: Do citizens produce good data? I can tell you without a doubt that they do,” Skopec said. “There are lots of studies that show that citizens produce good data when trained correctly. The information they’re generating is not as precise as a laboratory measurement, but it gives an accurate picture of water quality.”
She emphasized the contribution volunteer stream monitors make to society by providing water quality data in places where the state lacks data, such as small tributary streams. “Over 20 years, volunteers with IOWATER submitted more than 10,000 data records – much more information than the Iowa DNR was collecting on many of these streams.” Volunteer-collected data is also valuable to scientists, who can use it to see how water quality is changing over time, and to people and agencies implementing conservation programs on the ground.
Stream monitoring programs benefit the volunteers as well, helping them think more deeply about the water resources they’re testing, develop partnership-building skills, and expand their efforts to improve water quality. A survey of more than 1,700 IOWATER volunteers showed an increase in their ability to network with water quality groups as well as talk with family and colleagues about water quality issues. “People feel like they’ve got competence, they feel like they can be engaged, just because they were trained” as stream monitors, Skopec said. Volunteers also reported that the training helped them get involved in watershed groups (53%) and participate in cleanup days (49%).
“One of the things that was really fun to see is the number of people who stepped up into leadership roles,” Skopec said, including organizing a cleanup day (16%) and organizing a watershed group (15%). “It’s not a huge number of people, but they were really starting to think about organizing within their watersheds.”
Dr. Bonnie McGill, Research Fellow at the University of Kansas, provided some initial results from her research on nitrate pollution in Iowa rivers and showed that it’s not simply up to farmers to solve the nitrate problem.
“I have a confession to make,” McGill said. “I used to think that the best way to reduce nitrate pollution in our rivers and streams was to change the hearts and minds of farmers to understand their impact on the environment. And while I do believe that is an important part of the conversation, I think that conveniently leaves out some other big players who have a role to play in how nitrate gets into our rivers.” Other contributors include:
- Landlords who may not encourage conservation practices on the land farmers rent from them.
- Banks that structure loans so that farmers can’t implement certain conservation practices.
- Congress and the agriculture industry, which structure the incentives for how farmers make decisions.
And we need to look at ourselves. “How many of us eat meat from a fast-food restaurant or buy cheap meat from a grocery store chain? The low crop prices that ‘big ag’ wants and Congress helps provide support the livestock industry and making ethanol,” McGill said, and force farmers to grow more crops per acre on more acres to make the same living as they did 20 years ago.
If others play a role in nitrogen pollution, why is our solution to ask farmers to implement voluntary conservation practices? McGill suggested ways other players can protect water quality:
- Individuals: Get active with the League’s Save Our Streams program. “Those national water quality databases that you’re uploading your data to – myself and my colleagues frequently use those databases,” so that data is valuable. She also urged Ikes to look for (or start) a watershed group and to consider our role in water pollution by way of buying cheap meat.
- Landowners: Talk with tenants about conservation practices you want to see on your property. Research shows better outcomes when the landowner approaches the tenant about changes in farming practices, McGill said.
- Bankers: Look at what type of farming your loans enable – conservation or pollution?
McGill urged Ikes to take their children/grandchildren outside and teach them about nature – and not just at national parks out west. “Get them excited about the beauty of places like Iowa and the resources we have here.”
Second-generation farmer Bruce Carney talked about how the traditional farming system works against conservation by prioritizing short-term gains over long-term improvements. When he took over his family’s 300-acre Iowa farm, Carney “just kind of picked up where my dad left off” with 200 acres of row crops and 100 acres of pasture plus some cattle. After several years, he realized he did not want to keep using the chemicals and high inputs he was being encouraged to use – or borrow from the bank every year to do it.
Carney got out of the crop business in 2008 but was still corn-finishing his cattle. Then the price of corn skyrocketed. “The price went to $7 for corn and my bin was empty, so what was I going to do? I’m not going to buy $7 corn from somebody else. I decided, okay, we’re just going to grass-finish our beef. Then we picked up poultry and pork – we do it all on pasture and try to do it naturally.” Now that he sells his beef, poultry, and pork through local meat lockers, Carney reports more financial success than in the days when he depended on commodity crops and markets.
He pointed to a lending system that is focused on short-term gains and less likely to support conservation plans focused on longer term payoffs, citing this as a road block to implementing conservation practices. Another roadblock is federal policy. “Congress has created a welfare system for farmers, and farmers are just doing what they have to do to stay financially stable,” said Carney. “I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life. I’m not sure the voluntary system is going to work. Everybody’s trying, but when we’re not making money, how are we going to do all those things?”
When he converted his cropland to permanent pasture, Carney got assistance from government programs. “And I really struggled with signing that contract, because I didn’t want their money. I didn’t want them to have control over anything on my farm. But over the years I’ve kind of figured out that this is the system I live in today, so I just need to use it and try to improve my little piece of the world.”
Engaging a New Generation in Conservation
Phil Seng, Vice President of DJ Case and Associates, talked about “The Nature of Americans,” a survey of attitudes about the outdoors. He offered recommendations for effectively engaging young adults and families in League activities based on the survey results.
“It will come as no surprise to any of you that Americans admit they are largely disconnected from the natural world,” Seng said. “It is becoming normal to spend relatively little time outdoors.”
However, U.S. adults do recognize the benefits of nature for their health and well-being:
- 3 out of 4 adults say getting into nature is “very” or “extremely” important for their physical health.
- 3 out of 4 adults say getting into nature is “very” or “extremely” important for their emotional outlook.
Most adults also rate their interest in nature very highly. “You don’t have to convince most Americans that nature is enjoyable,” Seng said, but we may need to redefine what “nature” means for a new generation.
Who Are the Millennials?
Seng offered common traits for the generation born between 1980 and 1994, who tend to be more:
- Racially and ethnically diverse
- Interested in social and environmental issues
- Plugged in (they grew up with the internet)
- Focused on authenticity (they don’t like “spin”)
- Focused on quality
- Interested in experiences
- Opposed to being “labeled” (so don’t call them “millennials”!)
Despite being plugged in, 40% of millennials described nature as their “most enjoyable” interest – more than any other generational group – and another 41% said nature was “among their more enjoyable interests.” Millennials also described their interest in nature as growing.
The disconnect between interest in nature and how much time Americans are actually spending in nature is what Seng called the “interest-action gap.” He provided recommendations for closing that gap and engaging the next generation of conservationists.
1. Redefine Connecting with Nature
The conservation community tends to promote “nature” and outdoor recreation as a visit to iconic national parks or individual experiences in remote places (e.g., a hunter alone in the woods or a single canoer on a remote lake). Yet the majority of Americans don’t have the time or money to experience nature in this way. “Most Americans will never visit the Grand Canyon,” Seng said.
If people are convinced that “nature” is something they can only experience at a distant place, they will miss out on its benefits. “We need to redefine connecting to nature and make it okay to have a great experience close to home. League chapters – especially those that own land in local areas – have a huge opportunity to help redefine nature to everyone’s benefit.”
2. Be Social
Nature experienced alone can be a powerful thing, but this is not the primary way Americans experience nature today. The study showed that when people talk about their most memorable moments and special places outdoors, it involves being with people they care about. In fact, 51 percent of adults indicated they do not like being in nature by themselves – particularly young and middle-aged adults.
“Americans make time for nature when they have the social support to do so and when the activities involve their friends and family – especially among younger generations,” Seng explained. The same is true for attracting new participants to hunting and fishing.
3. Engage the Millennial Generation
Millennials are very interested in taking their place as the next great generation of conservationists, Seng said. “It’s just an obvious connection. The work you’re doing – stream cleanups, Save Our Streams, and beyond – is a natural place to engage millennials and build out the relationship from there.”
So if we want to engage millennials in conservation and the outdoors, where do we find them?
Online: When millennials are looking for information, more than 95 percent start by searching the Internet. “Be sure you have an accurate and engaging web presence, because they spend a LOT of time on the Internet,” Seng advised.
Communities of Interest: Millennials are more likely to be members of “communities of interest” than “communities of place.” Involvement in place-based activities around neighborhoods and with civic and church groups has declined, replaced by interest- based online communities. “There are social media groups and list servs for anything you can think of! And that’s where people are going to meet other people with shared interests.” Seng said. Presenting what your chapter has to offer – such as a shooting range or fishing lake – in these communities of interest is the key to finding and engaging millennials.
Next Conservation Generation
“There is a lot at stake at this point in history of conservation,” Seng urged. “The Izaak Walton League, as well as the entire conservation community, is not just in the business of providing a place for nature to thrive. You are not just in the business of providing recreational opportunities or conservation advocacy (as important as those things are). When you help conserve species, protect and restore habitats, and guide environmental policy, you are in the business of helping Americans live happier, healthier lives. You are in the business of helping children develop socially, psychologically, and physically. You are in the business of helping create places where Americans want to live, work, and flourish. Connection to nature and wildlife is fundamental to the economic and social wellbeing of our country and a critical component of American culture and history.”
“There are plenty of people in younger generations who are just as interested in nature and conservation as older generations are, but they may have very different expectations about how to get to that same place,” Seng concluded. “The challenge is whether you are willing to adapt your approach to make it more appealing and welcoming to the next generation of conservationists.”
See the videos and slides from our convention speakers
Read the resolutions passed at convention
Meet our award winners