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How Water Quality Improvement Plans Work

Badger Creek Lake in Madison County.What does a plan do?
Simply put, a water quality improvement plan looks at improving a stream or lake on Iowa’s impaired waters list. The plan identifies water quality problems, possible causes of those problems and proposes solutions. But it's also a process that requires the input and action of Iowans to be successful.

What about TMDLs?
You may have heard a water quality improvement plan called by its more technical name - a TMDL. This term stands for "Total Daily Maximum Load."

A TMDL is a calculation that determines how much of a pollutant can enter a specific stream or lake in one day and still allow the lake or stream to meet the state's water quality standards. This calculation is just one part of the larger water quality improvement plan.

The Federal Clean Water Act created the TMDL process, which requires developing a TMDL for pollutants that cause a stream or lake to be placed on Iowa's impaired waters list. In Iowa, the process goes far beyond a calculation and becomes a plan for improving water quality that relies on the support and participation of Iowans in the watershed.

Steps in developing an Iowa water quality improvement plan:

  1. Stream or lake placed on impaired waters list.
  2. The DNR meets with Iowans to learn about problems and possible causes of those problems in a watershed of an impaired stream or lake.
  3. DNR drafts a water quality improvement plan, which includes:
    • Inventory of sources of pollution in the watershed.
    • Actual TMDL calculation as described above.
    • Water quality restoration plan (also called an "implementation plan") to be put into action by local groups in the watershed.
  4. The DNR asks Iowans to review the draft water quality improvement plan.
  5. The DNR meets again with Iowans to gather their comments on the plan and discuss how locals can use the plan to create a local watershed improvement group and project.
  6. Locals use information in the water quality improvement plan to form a local watershed group and apply for grant funding to get the project started. Learn more about creating a watershed group.

What happens after a plan is prepared?
When the plan is written and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection, it's not the end, but a beginning.

For any real improvement to be made on a stream or lake that has a water quality improvement plan, it is up to local communities and landowners to put the plan into action. By organizing a watershed improvement group, locals can apply for funding from the DNR and other agencies to help landowners and others install conservation practices. Conservation practices make changes on the land to help reduce the amount of pollutants reaching a stream or lake.

The eventual goal is to reduce the amount of pollutants reaching the stream or lake so that it again meets water quality standards. At that point, the stream or lake may be able to come off the impaired waters list. Learn more about creating a watershed group.

DNR Contact
Jeff Berckes
Water Quality Improvement Plan (TMDL) Program Coordinator