The power of Iowa’s rivers was on display during record flooding that devastated parts of the state this spring and summer.

But many Iowans don’t realize the power they have in improving or reducing the quality of water in the state’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Iowa had the embarrassing distinction in 2007 of its namesake Iowa River being listed as one of the most endangered rivers in the country by the national organization American Rivers.

The list of Iowa’s impaired waters has grown to 279 on the most recent list submitted to the federal government, as officials identify more water bodies impaired by pollutants or other factors that make them less than desirable as drinking water sources, habitats for aquatic life or venues for recreational activities such as fishing and swimming.

The increase can be attributed in part to improved efforts by the state to collect data through water monitoring.

Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams are under increasing pressure from urban development and an agricultural sector driven by high corn and soybean prices to move more Iowa acres out of conservation into production. Land taken out of conservation can lead to greater soil erosion, meaning soil runs off land along with rainwater into waterways, reducing water quality.

The state’s growing urban areas also contribute to the problem, as concrete replaces soil that normally would absorb rainwater.

Despite the growing number of impaired waters, some of the state’s leading environmentalists share the belief that Iowa’s state government and its citizens have finally realized Iowa’s water quality challenges and are taking action to make improvements, watershed by watershed.

“The good news here is that more people are aware and more people are engaged in trying to address these issues. That’s a huge plus,” said Mark Ackelson, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

State lawmakers this year passed the Surface Water Protection Act, which focuses on improving watersheds. It sets up a 12-member council within the governor’s office charged with preserving and protecting Iowa’s water resources. The council is expected to make recommendations for improving water quality and developing a plan to educate Iowans about their personal responsibilities in maintaining clean water.

Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, acknowledges great progress on water quality in the last 10 years, when little water monitoring was done.

Heathcote believes the attention placed on water quality is greater than ever before.

“It’s filtering down to the average citizen and their knowledge that there are problems, and we need to do better,” Heathcote said.

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