Environmental issues have risen in priority in Central Iowa and now regularly rank among the top concerns for residents across the state. Members of the Capital Crossroads 2.0 Steering Committee voted water and soil quality as a top three competitive challenge in Central Iowa.
Although water and soil issues are at the forefront of our Natural Capital volunteers’ efforts, the objectives and actions contained under the Capital are broad and diverse, encompassing an array of components contributing to the region’s environmental and recreational health and vitality. This includes a focus on:
With all of these areas being connected, Central Iowa must implement coordinated and regional solutions. Also connected to this work is the expansion and regionalization of green space in Central Iowa. Leaders want to better connect and coordinate efforts around park development as well as funding, signage, and marketing. More broadly, the Natural Capital will focus on resource conservation at all levels, including working to ensure Central Iowa’s air, water, soil, and energy resources are maintained and renewed.
After 30 years of helping establish Iowa’s extensive trail system, INHF launched Iowa By Trail, an interactive mobile app that connects Iowans to trails and surrounding natural areas.
Central Iowa has grown quickly in the past two decades, as robust job creation has attracted new residents from across Iowa and the US. Existing land use in Greater Des Moines follows a pattern with denser uses clustered centrally and less dense uses spreading outwards. The Des Moines metro area must strive to maximize the efficiency of development patterns, ensure an appropriate range of housing opportunities, understand the impact of rural residential development in unincorporated areas, and provide adequate regional and sub-regional recreation facilities.
Any decisions about future growth policies will need to address the inherent tension between growth that is concentrated in just a few municipalities and growth that is distributed more evenly throughout the metro. Other potential opportunities presented by ongoing urbanization are guiding growth to minimize needed infrastructure expansion and identifying large unbuilt areas that could be preserved to provide habitat and recreational space.
The Tomorrow Plan has outlined numerous policy initiatives that support strategic growth frameworks. To better understand and leverage national best practices around smart growth, local leaders successfully created the Urban Land Institute Iowa.
A vision for strategic growth does not mean that Central Iowa should mandate that all communities implement land use policies formalizing dense urban nodes and corridors. There will continue to be Central Iowa cities and counties that foster suburban style and rural development patterns. However, leaders and stakeholders have prioritized a future in which land uses are effectively managed to encourage efficient use of existing infrastructure and developments, multimodal transportation, and preservation of natural spaces and amenities.
Prioritize development in targeted nodes and corridors
Zone for preferred land use patterns
Identify effective growth management tools for potential incorporation into Iowa code
The communities most attractive to newcomers in today’s economy increasingly offer a dynamic collection of natural and man-made recreational amenities that get people outdoors and are family-friendly. Consequently, Central Iowa has increased development of parks, trails, and connections between these assets and local activity nodes. Still, stakeholders acknowledge that more work is necessary to enhance Central Iowa’s Natural Capital capacity and sustainability.
Central Iowa parks already are well used and loved amenities for local residents. Development of new park spaces and recreation facility expansions promise to further raise the profile of Central Iowa as a parks capital. The development and enhancement of parks can be advanced even more effectively under a coordinated regional framework.
Develop and implement a regional parks plan (BP26)
The Natural Capital will expand its focus from the previous areas of air, water, and soil to also reflect resource conservation issues and policies related to energy. Consistent with this holistic conservation focus, tactics related to water quality, stormwater management, and flood protection have been incorporated under the Natural Capital framework, with strong connections to the Physical Capital’s efforts.
As the Iowa Soil and Water Future Task Force noted in its 2016 recommendations, the state has a tremendous opportunity to find common ground solutions to fund its soil and water infrastructure as effectively as its transportation infrastructure. The Task Force believes that public-private investment in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy through increased funding will be the principal pathway to success in soil and water quality improvement. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was intentionally woven through Central Iowa watershed management plans. Its implementation is expected to continue for over thirty years and can be coordinated regionally with state and federal department officials. Experts say water quality issues are inherently a problem of “rural versus urban – dirty water and loss of topsoil plus too much flow.” While governments know how to fix the problem at the micro-level, it is too expensive for large property owners and farms to address. Politics also come into play when strategies are proposed and come up for a vote.
Continue expanding watershed-management capacity and impacts
Regionalize drinking water distribution and management
Improve stormwater runoff through the implementation of water infiltration strategies during road rehabilitation projects and the construction of new roadways
Establish local, state, and federal financial resources at scale
Central Iowa has seen significant damage from floods, including the 2008 flood that saw water levels exceeding hundred-year projections. Floodplain management can help the region prepare for more extreme weather events that cause flooding and increased water flow in our waterways. Floodplains provide beneficial natural functions essential for water resources, wildlife habitat, and human interaction. Some of these functions include temporarily storing flood waters, filtering sediments and nutrients to improve water quality, recharging the groundwater supply, supporting natural vegetation that reduces soil erosion, and providing fish and wildlife habitat.
Coordinate strategies to limit Central Iowa’s flood risk
The Iowa Soil and Water Future Task Force is a testament to the output and impact that can result from coalitions of public and private leaders and practitioners coming together behind a shared vision for Central Iowa’s natural environment. These efforts – likely through ongoing partnerships between Physical and Natural Capital action teams – must continue across a broad spectrum of resource categories, including soil, water, air, and energy.
Continue building coalitions to develop and implement natural resource protection and enhancement initiatives
Secure conservation status for critical natural environments
Foster discussions on energy efficiency and renewable energy issues and opportunities
The Natural Capital has advocated for the need for marketing and education on Central Iowa’s natural resources and needs since its inception. Public officials ultimately are only responsible to the will of those who elect them, so statewide and regional support for investments in the natural environment likely will be the deciding factor behind the approval of funds to implement Natural Capital priorities.
As the Natural Capital team, we will continue to enhance the awareness of Central Iowa’s environmental challenges, future opportunities, and the public’s role in affecting them. While promoting the role of the Natural Capital team itself is important, an outreach campaign also could be directed more broadly at the need to plan for the future and invest in the capacity necessary to ensure that Central Iowa’s growth can be sustainable and sensitive to the natural environment.
Develop compelling and effective public outreach campaigns