At our most recent Power Breakfast discussion, we asked the panelists about the relationship between water quality, outdoor recreation and economic development. 

Our panelists included: 

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson – water program director, Iowa Environmental Council. 
Ted Corrigan – interim CEO and general manager, Des Moines Water Works.
Tom Hadden – city manager, West Des Moines.
Kathryn Kunert – vice president, Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator board.
Sean McMahon – executive director, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.

McMahon said the Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean and Iowa Pork associations — the founders of his group — wanted to take accountability for pollution issues and to support the voluntary efforts under the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (efforts roundly praised by ag interests and largely panned as ineffective, at current levels, by environmental and some drinking-water officials). He said his organization was meant to increase support of the efforts from private interests, so waterways are cleaner for recreation and other uses. 

“We’re trying to harness market-driven solutions,” McMahon said. “We can all be creating jobs as we are improving water quality. Water quality is really linked with recreation and economic development. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to really pull on the same rope in the same direction at the same time” to improve water quality, recreation and businesses’ ability to hire staff.

Kunert said water quality, recreation and business are inextricably linked. Projects like the water trails are important in bringing workers into a state that can’t meet its labor needs alone, she said. 

“First and foremost, it’s an economic development amenity that’s needed. We compete all day, every day for workforce. Workforce needs are not unique to Iowa,” Kunert said. “To have the people, you need to have things that make people want to live here. Iowans just serving Iowans is long past being successful. We have to attract people. You have to create those competitive advantages.

“A lot of young people are looking at where they want to live, and then they find a job. One of the things you can compare this to is bike trails. They started in neighborhoods, but now they are connecting the whole state. Rivers are connectors. This will do that as well. It doesn’t matter where you learned to ride a bike, it matters where you want to ride a bike. This project [water trails] really drives what we are all about — economic development and sustainability for our state for the long term.”

Hadden said West Des Moines is “all in” on the water trails, with a series of projects to connect waterways in the major suburb, in part with proceeds from a local option sales tax. “People want to be by the water. They kind of take it for granted that they aren’t looking at Colorado water or northern Minnesota water. But we can still make our water much better.” Part of that will be the city and West Des Moines Water Works demonstrating what can be done, he said. 

“The competition [for workforce] is fierce,” Hadden said. “We want to have a really high quality of life.”

Corrigan noted that the Nov. 13 panel occurred on the 100th anniversary of Des Moines Water Works, an agency that helped rid water supplies of typhoid but now is dealing with nitrate and algae toxins in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. “The challenges are different today, but they are still there. Everybody knows we are tremendous water quality advocates.”
Corrigan said the water trails are part of a stark change in a river city that built some of its most important buildings on the river — then turned its back for decades.

“Historically, in Des Moines and in the rest of Iowa, we have not invited people to our rivers,” Corrigan said. “In fact, we have kind of tucked our rivers behind buildings and balustrades. Even in Water Works Park, we somewhat hid the river. We didn’t invite people in.” It’s been hard to get on or off the river, and the low-head dams have claimed lives, he noted. 
“That separation of people and the river has in some ways contributed to the water quality we have today,” which is lowered significantly by pollution from farms and other sources. “People in Des Moines and the rest of Iowa haven’t considered the assets that the rivers can be. We are incredibly excited about this [water trails] project.”

Echoing the comments of other panelists, Corrigan said the more people use the rivers, the more they will work to improve water quality in the rivers. 
Gronstal Anderson said her organization, now in its 24th year, was formed to note that businesses can help improve the environment. She agreed with Corrigan that people’s separation from rivers in general has led to a lack of investment in those streams.

“One of the things the council has tried to do is to look at it a balancing of the economic interests in water resources. Who has business interests and business development interests in these resources that belong to all Iowans,” Gronstal Anderson said. 

At the Iowa Great Lakes, local residents understand the importance of good water quality. “The people up there have invested in protecting it, and they protect that water quality very fiercely. I always argue that Iowa has a lot of nice things, but we don’t invest in them so people don’t know about them.”
Businesses in an area like that can’t afford something like beach advisories for a week or two when the season is short, she added.

Takeaways

This is refreshing to see what the latest thoughts are on water quality; I have followed this issue for a long time, and to know it’s being taken seriously is refreshing. As [the panelists] stated, all the projects going on are really going to help to bring the issue to people’s attention. It’s really kind of a chicken-or-egg thing -- which will come first, tackling water quality or getting people on the water? But ultimately, I think if we can do it at the same time, it’s going to be a win-win. We’re an environmental consulting firm; we do a lot of stream restoration and wetland projects, and we’re really just getting into the water quality arena, so we’re trying to follow this discussion more and more to to see where we can fit in.  
– Megan Down, project manager, Impact7G 

Collaboration is a critical part of the solution. And it seems now that the Legislature is coming into the session [with a greater awareness of the need for water quality funding]. Now, with the interest being expressed in the Water Trails Project, that’s providing a little bit of sex appeal to a big issue, and I’m hopeful that something’s going to happen. Now is the time for action. 
– Mike Schreurs, chairman and chief strategist, 
Strategic America 

“I think there are a lot of opportunities for leaders in the business community, or folks who have not operated a lot in this space of water policy, to have a value proposition -- there’s opportunities for entrepreneurial investment,” said Gronstal Anderson. 
After the panel, Gronstal Anderson pointed to the bicycle trail system as a precursor to entrepreneurial investment. 
“With water quality and outdoor recreation, you can see additional breweries pop up, you can see coffee shops and that sort of thing based on recreation,” said Gronstal Anderson. “I think you’ve seen that here with the bike trails. … Without these kinds of recreational resources, you wouldn’t have that development of those small businesses that pop up along the way.” 
– Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, water program director, Iowa Environmental Council