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$96M grant aims to clean water, reduce flooding
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$96M grant aims to clean water, reduce flooding

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Many people talk about improving water quality in Iowa — and, by extension, shrinking the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico — but Larry Weber is doing something about it.

Weber is the co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center based at the University of Iowa who earlier this year helped win a $96 million public-private grant to implement "a mosaic of practices" that will help cleanse water in eight Iowa watersheds.

Weber was one of about 25 speakers Thursday at the ninth annual Upper Mississippi River Conference being held at the iWireless Center, Moline.

Presented by River Action Inc., Davenport, and sponsored by more than 20 businesses and organizations, the theme of this year's two-day event is to "raise the grade" of the Mississippi River.

It refers to a "report card" issued a year ago by America's Watershed Initiative that evaluated the river in six key areas — economy, flood risk reduction, transportation, ecosystem health and recreation — and gave it a "D."

The Upper Mississippi — the area above Cairo, Illinois, that includes the Quad-Cities — received a "C."

During work sessions Friday, the more than 200 people attending the conference will be charged with developing concrete, achievable plans to "raise the grade."

The five-year "Iowa Watershed Approach" that Weber described is a model conference attendees might consider in developing achievable plans.

In addition to improving water quality, other goals are to reduce flooding risk, increase resilience in communities, engage stakeholders (all the people involved) and develop a program that might be replicated elsewhere in the country.

The grant for the program was awarded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development along with the Rockefeller Foundation. One might ask why HUD, generally associated with housing, cares about flooding. The answer is concern for low- and moderate-income people affected by flooding, as well as poor water quality.

The grant for the program was awarded through a "national disaster resilience competition," with resilience defined as the ability of a social system to respond to, and recover from, flood events through absorbing impacts, adapting to change and withstanding disruption.

None of the watersheds in the program is in the immediate Quad-Cities; the closest is the Middle Cedar River watershed that is to the west and south. But, as Weber explained, what is learned and accomplished can be shared throughout the country.

One of the ways water quality might be improved is by installing saturated buffers to divert water from farm drainage tiles into an underground buffer area where nitrate and phosphorus would be filtered out before the water goes into a stream.

The grant provides a cost-share to farmers to install such systems; the program would pay for 75 percent and the farmer would pay 25 percent.

Water from drainage tiles has gained national attention since the filing two years ago of a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works against three rural Iowa drainage districts, arguing that the tile water should be regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

Des Moines Water Works gets its water from the Raccoon River, fed by streams in the drainage districts, and it must spend large amounts of money to filter out nitrates to make it safe for drinking.

Bill Stowe, manager of the water works, has said drainage tiles and nutrient reduction should be regulated by law; both Iowa and Illinois have adopted a voluntary strategy.

One of the watersheds in Weber's program is the North Raccoon.

In addition to affecting the safety of drinking water, nitrate and phosphorus are a concern because they are nutrients that encourage algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. When these blooms die, they deplete oxygen, so that nothing else can grow, creating the "Dead Zone."

Those studying the "Dead Zone" and what to do about it have set a goal of reducing its size to about 5,000 square kilometers. In 2005, it was 15,000 square kilometers. One mile equals about 1.6 kilometers.

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