Get to know Marty Lenss
What would our environment look like if the 159 commercial service airports in the Mississippi watershed were connected on a mission to improve and protect water quality? Even if a fraction of those airports were involved, it would mean impactful horsepower to leverage water quality projects, clean waterways, and initiate conversations in more communities on the topic. “We have a great opportunity, and airports can really play a meaningful role in making a difference,” says Marty Lenss.
Lenss knows a thing or two about airports, being the Airport Director at the Eastern Iowa Airport (CID). He’s also the founder and a board member of Wings2Water. There’s a “natural connection” between the two for him, and he believes other airports will see that as well. “Airports are an industrial complex and having environmental stewardship is an important aspect of our industry. It makes sense for airports to get involved, and it’s very easy to sign on.”
For Lenss, the connection was truly years in the making. He grew up in Minnesota, spending many weekends fishing, canoeing, and “taking in the natural beauty of our waterways” with his family. “This passion for water quality really comes from my upbringing and being an outdoor enthusiast,” he says.
Once he relocated to Iowa, he would often read newspapers or magazine articles and hear more on the news about Iowa’s waterways and the conditions of rivers, streams, and lakes. Nearly everything mentioned “the need to do something different; to make significant improvements to how we manage our natural resources,” says Lenss. He started to research more about downstream effects, how Iowa’s waterways move into the Mississippi River and ultimately down into the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution and nutrient runoff are primary contributors to the Gulf’s Dead Zone each year.
It was more than the research and readings that sparked Lenss’ vision and desire to improve Midwest waters. The issue really ‘hit home’ while he was out with his family for a fun day of boating on the Coralville Reservoir. “Watching our kids jump off of the boat, into the lake, and literally disappear. It caused a certain amount of angst as a father not being able to see your child swimming below the surface,” he says. That wasn’t an experience he’d had before in the waters of his home state or other neighboring locations. It was that moment and realization “that we really do have a problem, and it’s something that we can collectively play a role in making a difference.”
Lenss started looking into other platforms and organizations, including The Good Traveler which provides airline travelers the opportunity to offset the carbon footprint of a trip. This made Lenss think, “why can’t we do something similar for water quality?” At an airport conference he met with members of the San Diego airport, where The Good Traveler started. Then it was back to Iowa to work on launching a platform focused on water quality in the Mississippi watershed, starting with the Eastern Iowa Airport. It was and is an ideal “proof-of-concept” location, with daily opportunities to communicate with millions of travelers on the topic of water quality and how anyone can make a difference as an “impact investor.”
Once “we put the bones around the concept,” Lenss started talking with other community members. An initial board was formed, and a number of corporate donations contributed to the official launch in the fall of 2019. An event to celebrate the commencement of Wings2Water was also held at the Eastern Iowa Airport, with all proceeds benefiting the organization’s first partners – The Linn and Johnson County Conservation Departments. These were “partners that could use the money that came in initially, for specific water quality projects,” says Lenss.
By supporting these two departments, Wings2Water provided funding that enabled water quality projects to move forward. It’s one of the primary objectives of the platform, “to be a vehicle to bring funding and resources to the entities that are doing the good work of water quality restorations” in the Mississippi watershed. Furthermore, Lenss says the Wings2Water partnership set the departments apart with their own grant applications.
An additional partnership with SSP America was also generated to begin “round-it-up” transaction programs at food and beverage locations at the Eastern Iowa Airport. It allows any traveler or visitor to round-up their purchase, directly supporting Wings2Water in a simple but impactful way.
What’s next? Lenss says, “In partnership with SSP America, we’re embarking upon inviting other airports within the watershed to join the mission.” If there was ever a time to take action, it’s now. With the Mississippi River now listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, Lenss aims to have the same message in terminals throughout the watershed, educating travelers about water quality and encouraging them to make an impact. Any traveler can help make a difference, whether that is via a formal partnership or by simply donating directly through a QR code.
One day, hopefully in the near future, “we will see additional airports join us on the mission of environmental stewardship and water quality improvement,” says Lenss. “Connecting the Mississippi watershed via the aviation system and providing travelers the opportunity to grasp the scale of the issue with the opportunity to make a difference, provides a very exciting opportunity to make meaningful change.”