Prairie gems shine bright

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

There was a little regional hubbub the other week when the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture announced 10 of the state's newest urban conservation water quality demonstration projects. That's a heck of a state title. Anyway, the state is giving just over $789,000 in total for the projects and the cities themselves are pitching in more than $3 million altogether. Now, you'll recognize cities like Ames or Algona, Clive or Coralville. And while you may know Grimes, I have a feeling you don't know Garnavillo.

Sure, Cherokee is one of the smaller cities on the list, but it's got about 4,000 more people than good ol' Garnavillo population 723 (at least according to 2016 Google data). It's a pretty small town to be listed among the likes of Sioux City population 82,000. It doesn't have a Whole Foods or even a Fareway. Instead, there was an IGA called Bob's Food Store until a few years ago. It doesn't have an Olive Garden. It has the Thoma Dairy Bar, where you can get pancakes the size of hubcaps, at least according to one particularly hungry hunter. But don't doubt him. That region of the state has some claim to large-scale foods. People have traveled down the Gunder Road to visit Gunder population 27 according to a sign posted next door the local restaurant The Irish Shanty just to eat a full-pound beef patty called the Gunderburger.

I don't say these things to make fun. Garnavillo is a special place for me, especially the house at the corner of East Center Street and North Monroe (where the fridge was always stocked with generic lemon-lime soda from the IGA next door). My father's parents lived in Garnavillo, and I was born about 12 miles from it. So I realize to just what extent Garnavillo really is the "Gem of the Prairie" it claims to be. And I would say gem is not an inaccurate descriptor because, while they may not have the population of Grimes, Muscatine or even Atlantic, they have the same drive to improve water quality the rest of the state does.

Of the five least populace cities participating in the demonstration this year, three of them are also using the state funding to cover a quarter or less of the total cost of their respective projects. Now, with what I've gleaned while sitting in on county supervisors meetings both Dickinson County and in Clay County, I'd say the numbers indicate every applicant was likely capped at $100,000, and I'm aware they may be pursuing grants from other state agencies to cover the remaining cost. That said, it's still a lot of work and shows a lot of commitment, especially considering some grants and funding matches are payable after the work is completed, meaning the public pays now and gets reimbursed later. In the case of this year's water quality demonstrations, some communities successfully applied for the state to cover half their cost. In fact, Sioux City did just that and was able to secure $100,000 from the state. On the other hand, a collaborative project between Coralville and North Liberty was actually the least state-funded in the bunch. Even though they too got $100,000 from the state, the total project is estimated at $1,415,500, which makes up just about 7 percent of the total cost.

But Garnavillo's project is only three slots behind Coralville and North Liberty. The city was awarded $80,000 to help install rain gardens in the city park and permeable pavers in the downtown area where the hubcap-sized pancakes are. Both aspects are aimed at addressing runoff into South Cedar Creek and ultimately the Turkey River watershed. The total cost is estimated to be $337,000, meaning the 723 people of Garnavillo are funding 77 percent of the project in other ways, possibly paying for it themselves.

And that's admirable.

Which brings me to what I'm really getting at here. The Ag Department's press release said an additional purpose of the Garnavillo stormwater project is to "provide education and outreach opportunities within the community."

Just like the Arnolds Park permeable pavement that went in last year along Monument Drive, or the permeable pavement proposed for the planned cul du sac near The Inn at Okoboji, or the permeable pavers planned for the Clay County Fair's Centennial Plaza, or the permeable street pavement and wetlands Storm Lake funded, each development serves as an example. It's not just an example of environmental stewardship. It's an example to larger communities. If we can do it, they can do it. From Dickinson County, to Clay County to Clayton County, everyone can do it. Even if we end up taking on the lion's share of the cost or 93 percent of the cost like those over-achievers in Johnson County we're showing where our priorities lie. But most importantly, we're showing how effective these new solutions can be.

And there's something satisfying about small towns leading the way.