The city of Des Moines, along with state agriculture and conservation groups, is partnering on projects totaling nearly $59 million in the North Raccoon and Des Moines River watersheds to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding downstream.

According to a news release from the city, two federal grants, combined with $39 million in public-private contributions, will accelerate the use of conservation practices that will help reduce nutrients that run off into the two watersheds.

The Regional Conservation Partnership recently awarded $10 million to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and $9.8 million to the Iowa Soybean Association to help farmers and landowners expand conservation efforts.

City of Des Moines Public Works Director Jonathan Gano said the two initiatives are working toward the same goal: “To reduce the risk of flooding and improve water quality along the Des Moines and North Raccoon Rivers.”

He said Des Moines’ motivation for participation is because the city sits at the confluence of the two rivers, which have experienced increased flooding since 1993 as rain events have become more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change.

The city of Des Moines contributed $2 million for water quality projects as part of the 12-member coalition that makes up the Iowa Soybean Association partnership, while the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority invested $3 million in projects to stabilize stream banks as part of the 16-member Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship partnership.

Gano said the partnerships with state agricultural and conservation groups will focus resources and develop innovative approaches to farm fields in both watersheds.

By using precision agricultural techniques, the use of cover crops and no-till production, it can contribute to fewer nutrients entering the rivers, while improving the quality of soil where farmers grow their crops, Gano said.

It can also help farmers stop using unprofitable land, and instead expand their conservation efforts, he said.

“There are oftentimes parts of a farm that are less profitable, and in some cases acres that are just unprofitable but they have been farmed for years and years,” Gano said. “Using precision ag technologies helps farmers save money, and they actually make more money because they are spending less on inputs on that land that isn’t profitable. They then can turn that land into grass waterways or use other conservation approaches rather than farming unprofitable land.”

He said keeping water where it lands makes “farmers and landowners a necessary part of our flood fighting toolbox,” Gano said. “In addition, if we keep rainwater on-site, we keep nutrients there, too.”

There’s also an economic development incentive to improve water quality and reduce the flood risk, he said.

“There’s another $100 million effort to turn (the rivers) into viable and attractive recreational resources,” he said.

Doing that can help draw people and companies to Des Moines and help retain those that are already here, Gano said.

“There’s a lot of benefits to be gained from working with our upstream neighbors,” he said. “This project delivers on all those benefits all at once.”

Roger Wolf, the soybean association’s director of innovation and integrated solutions, said the group appreciates working with the city of Des Moines and other partners on the project.

“Delivering results and value upstream on farms will also deliver downstream benefits.  Together we are better,” Wolf said in a news release. 

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said bridging urban and rural interests is critical to the success of the projects.

“Whether you live in the city or the country, our rivers and streams unite us all,” he said in the release. “And that means we all have a stake in helping to improve our water quality. When public and private partners work together and leverage our collective investments, we can have a much greater impact.”