Meet Alicia Vasto, the Iowa Environmental Council’s new water czar

Iowa Environmental Council’s new Water Program Director — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Growing up in the small town of Adel kept a young Alicia Vasto in the outdoors, exploring nature along rivers and streams. She developed a deep love for what naturally existed around her.

Understanding the grim realities of climate change, Vasto realized she could only make a big impact using a top-down approach.

“To see the kind of changes that we need in our environment to protect our environment and to address climate change, we need to be addressing those issues,” she told Little Village. “Not just [at] the smaller levels — it’s really important — but also at the bigger policy level to turn that work into big action.”

Vasto was announced as the Iowa’s Environmental Council’s (IEC) new water program director on Sept. 8, a promotion from her former role as assistant director. The IEC is an organization that pushes for climate action, environmental justice and creating welcoming communities for people to enjoy through education, advocacy and community building.

“There has been a really big focus on water quality in this state, but it has never been at a transformational level that we need in order to see change at the scope and scale which is necessary to protect our waterways,” Vasto said.

The state needs brand new environmental policies and protections, she asserts, “instead of the same old voluntary programs that we have relied on for many, many decades that have led us to this point.”

The primary protectors of our water ways are volunteers, she said, which isn’t enough. Policies that would provide more protection include environmental requirements for agricultural operations, implementing conservation practices, addressing water quality from a watershed perspective, and supporting that work through state programs.

Some specific regulations might be “requiring buffers along waterways so you can’t farm right into a stream [and] requiring application of fertilizer at the amount that’s necessary for plants needs, not above and beyond that because that’s what ends up in our waterways includes them,” Vasto said.

Fortunately, Vasto sees enthusiastic and progressive leadership in Des Moines and Polk County that could make lobbying for these progressive policies possible at a local level.

“We really have the benefit of having leadership that supports environmental protection and supports expanding access to natural areas and having multi-use areas that are going to you protect communities against floods, but also can provide bike trails or birdwatching opportunities,” she said.

“We have the benefits of having the population base and the support for funding those kinds of things — kind of putting the money behind it — that we’re able to get those benefits for people here in the city [and] in the county.”

She hopes that the IEC can serve as a model for other agencies in the state and “bring up the scope and scale of which we’re addressing the problems.”

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Buffers have already started being implemented in northern Polk County, which have been successful so far, according to Vasto. Another project focuses on bioretention. Small wetlands are installed around the city and county to help reduce stormwater pollution.

Vasto has also worked on the Fourmile Creek restoration, a floodplain reconnection project. Land that frequently flooded was purchased and restored so that the nearby creek has a place to safely flood, a natural river function.

A project Vasto is really proud of is the Iowa Water Watch program, which she has helped expand in recent years.

“It started originally as Weekly Water Watch, where we were doing weekly emails throughout the summer, letting people know about beach advisories. Now I’ve expanded it to be a broader program that includes a monthly newsletter in the offseason, and events like webinars and things like that, to try to get people engaged on recreational issues, economic development and tourism issues associated with those amenities, and, obviously, the links to water quality,” Vasto explained.

Livestock waste, pesticides and other pollutants from industrial farms have caused unprecedented water quality problems in Iowa, and states down river from it. — Tim McCabe/USDA

In Vasto’s new role, she is now responsible for things such as writing grants, managing budgets and ensuring the organization is a sustainable program. A focus of Vasto and the IEC is integrating climate and environmental justice work, developing a more holistic vision for protecting the natural world.

Vasto has volunteered with the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District as assistant commissioner and in other capacities, but the pandemic has disrupted those efforts. Now, most of her work in conserving the land is through her duties with IEC — but she does miss “doing volunteer work and getting out in the community,” she said.

Vasto received a degree in environmental science from the University of Notre Dame, and a master’s in environmental management from Duke University.

Other roles that Vasto has taken on throughout the years include being on the Clean Water and Land Stewardship Program council; Nutrient Reduction Strategy analysis; efforts to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in Iowa; a leadership role with IEC on their justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts; serving as executive director of the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition; and serving as the operations and communications director at the Land Trust for Central North Carolina.

This year, Vasto received a New Voices in Water Quality award from the Conservation Learning Group.

“I’m really honored; I was really surprised!” she said. “I had no idea that I had been nominated. So, I just appreciate the recognition and the opportunity to be part of a group of people whose voices are being lifted up that it is maybe hard to be part of water conversations in a state that’s very entrenched. And there’s a lot of people that have been doing this for a long, long time. So, to be recognized as a new voice, and to try to bring my perspective and what I feel like as a perspective shared by other people my age or from my generation is it’s really meaningful.”

Balancing the interests of the state’s powerful agriculture industry and environmental advocates is one of Iowa’s most pressing challenges.

“If we want to make this state a place where people want to live and actually enjoy living, then we have to provide beautiful [public spaces],” Vasto said. “We have to protect our environment, and provide outdoor spaces for people to actually enjoy.”

To do that, there has to be considerations for younger people who want to enjoy being outdoors “and then also ensure that there are amenities and spaces available for people to spend their free time and improve their quality of life.”

The IEC is concentrated on promoting clean water, land stewardship and climate resiliency. Vasto’s understanding of this is “having water that’s safe to drink and recreate in, having land that is respected and taken care of and treated in a way that allows for future generations to be able to appreciate it and live off the land.”

The Malinda Reif Reilly Fen and Prairie in Johnson County, Iowa is a glowing example of environmental sustainability. —

“Then with climate,” she continued, “it’s about recognizing that climate change is happening, and we need to find ways is to try to mitigate the worst effects of it and try to prevent the worst possible scenarios from happening.”

There is no question of Vasto’s goals for the city and the county. It starts with “protecting a landscape that is going to be able to adapt and resist the worst outcomes of climate change so that we can continue to live here.”

“Des Moines specifically, I think the biggest risk is just being in an inhospitable environment — and not like a physical environment, but a political and cultural environment that turns people away, or leaves people out, or is not welcoming to all different kinds of people,” she explained.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Vasto is pushing for statewide environmental regulations. She also encourages people to get involved in policymaking processes, and voice their own desires to “protect our environment and protect our people.”