Environmentalists wonder: Is state hiding bad nitrate news?

By: - January 17, 2020 3:39 pm
The Raccoon River in the Des Moines area is among the most-polluted in the state.

The Raccoon River is a main source of drinking water for the Des Moines area. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

An annual report assessing the progress of the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy — the nucleus of Iowa’s water-quality efforts — is running late and stirring questions about worsening pollution.

Staffers at the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council said the report is months beyond the window in which it used to be released. They fear the delay comes because the news isn’t good and the authors are looking for ways to spin bad news.

But state officials say the extra time was needed to sift through better and more extensive monitoring data, which is taking the place of less-accurate estimates used in the past. The state is also reviewing a new map of conservation practices that will help gauge whether pollution is reduced in the area. Also, state staffers are reorganizing the report format.

Those factors may indeed be part of the reason for the tardiness, said IEC water program director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson. But because state officials have refused to respond to the environmental council’s formal requests for information about the compiling of the draft report, Gronstal Anderson said she and her colleagues are leery. 

Taxpayers, including lawmakers, should have the chance to see how the report is being constructed on their behalf, Gronstal Anderson said. Based on the environmental council’s experience, they haven’t, she added.

“I am worried that there is data in here that people are afraid of releasing,” Gronstal Anderson said. The Iowa Environmental Council has repeatedly taken administrative and legal action to push the state to do more on water quality. 

“I’m concerned that this information will get buried or spun” without citizens getting to see the original information to gauge the situation for themselves, she added. 

The debate comes as lawmakers prepare to consider Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan to raise approximately $150 million a year for water quality and conservation projects. She’s paying for the program through a voter-approved account that would be funded by a sales tax increase. The added tax receipts would be offset by cuts in income taxes and in property taxes that pay for mental health programs locally, under Reynolds’ plan.

State officials have estimated that the state would need $77 million to $1.2 billion a year to address farm runoff pollution noted in Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

State has denied open records requests for emails about work on drafts

IEC is so concerned that staff members employed the state’s open records law and a certified letter to try to get answers — but failed, Gronstal Anderson said. State officials told council staff members that the draft report and related documents aren’t subject to the state’s open records law. 

“In our open records request, we (requested) emails and documents that talk about the creation of the report, because we wanted to see if there were discussions of ‘how are we going to deal with this data?’ or that sort of thing. And then they didn’t end up giving us any of that information,” Gronstal Anderson said.

Randy Evans
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Freedom of Information Council.)

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the state should have granted the environmental council’s request. “(The council) ought to be able to get access to the correspondence,” Evans said. “The correspondence would be public, as would the response. 

“As (the state) is continuing to evaluate the progress of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, I think a chief component of that for the public is comments that various interest groups and parties are making to the DNR before it is boiled into a report that might not adequately reflect the thoughts of individual participants,” Evans said.

The public interest in the annual report is clear, Evans added. “I would be hard-pressed to think of a topic that would have greater widespread public interest than the quality for the surface water in Iowa.”

Many Iowa communities, including Des Moines, treat water from rivers and shallow aquifers to fill taps in area homes. One of the key pollutants, nitrate, occurs naturally but is tied mostly to farm fertilizers. Des Moines Water Works, which serves a half-million people, has one of the world’s largest nitrate-removal systems because of the pollution, and runs it when levels are particularly high. 

State and local governments also supervise dozens of lake beaches, where bacterial outbreaks and toxic algae blooms have been a growing problem in recent years.

Keely Coppess, communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said the annual report on the state’s progress under the Nutrient Reduction Strategy isn’t ready yet. She did not answer a question about the trend in nitrate pollution shown by the data under review by Iowa State University, the ag department, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources — the three entities leading work on the report. 

“The Nutrient Reduction Strategy annual report is currently under development,” Coppess wrote in an email in response to a reporter’s questions emailed to several leaders of the effort. 

“We have some new information that was not collected or provided in previous years,” Coppess continued. “We’re still working through that information and determining how to incorporate it into this year’s report,” Coppess said. “We’re also altering the format of the report to make it more reader-friendly, based on comments received in the past. We anticipate the report will be released sometime in March, which is consistent with last year.”

The 2018 annual report was released on March 4, 2019, according to ISU’s running list of “news releases and notices” about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The 2016 and 2017 reports were issued in mid- to late December, the same website shows.  

Ag leaders, environmentalists disagree on program’s effectiveness

While agricultural leaders have hailed the strategy as effective, environmentalists and other critics have said it is a failure and should be replaced with regulations. The framework — which calls for regulatory actions involving sewage treatment plants but only voluntary work on farms — is designed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads in waterways by 45 percent, compared with averages between 1980 and 1996, over two or three decades. 

The Wallace State Office Building is home of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. (Photo by Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

At the current pace farmers are installing conservation practices, that goal — based on a federal task force recommendation — won’t be met, the state said in last year’s annual report. “The pace at which conservation practices are installed and implemented must continue to accelerate if strategy goals are to be met within 20 to 30 years,” wrote report co-author Laurie Nowatzke, who works on the strategy at Iowa State University.

The environmental council petitioned the governor-appointed Iowa Environmental Protection Commission in the past year asking that the state set numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus — “nutrients” as the scientists call them because they feed plants, such as corn. EPC denied the petition, as it has similar challenges in the past. 

Gronstal Anderson said it is important for the public to have access to the information the state is considering, because the state has consistently viewed the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as the centerpiece of its efforts to clean up waterways that are heavy polluted with ag runoff, silt and clouded with large algae blooms that sometimes are a health risk to swimmers.

The fight over emails and other records could end up invoking the state’s open records law. 

A section of the Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, the state’s freedom of information law, says “confidential records” include: “Tentative, preliminary, draft, speculative, or research material, prior to its completion for the purpose for which it is intended and in a form prior to the form in which it is submitted for use or used in the actual formulation, recommendation, adoption, or execution of any official policy or action by a public official authorized to make such decisions for the governmental body or the government body.”

However the next sentence adds: “This subsection shall not apply to public records that are actually submitted for use or are used in the formulation, recommendation, adoption, or execution of any official policy or action of a governmental body or a government body by a public official authorized to adopt or execute official policy for the governmental body or the government body.”

The most recently released annual report, for 2017-18, showed the state used data and reports from federal, state and local government sources, but also from the Iowa Soybean Association and private nonprofit organizations. The report authors noted “high variability” among models that estimated nitrate loads in Iowa stream. They also noted that they planned to use “higher resolution datasets” and remote sensing information in this year’s report — which aligns with what ag department spokeswoman Coppess said.  

Evans contended that once the data are shared with the state, they are public records.

Panel was told to expect report by the end of 2019

Regarding the delay, it seems clear that the authors intended the report to be out much earlier than is now planned.

In the May 30, 2019, minutes of the Water Resources Coordinating Council, a legislatively created panel of state, federal and university officials that help plan water quality work in Iowa, Nowatzke was quoted as saying the “(The) goal is to release a draft in the fall with a final report released before the end of the year (2019).” That panel typically reviews the annual progress report a few months before it is released. A sign-in sheet shows environmental groups were present at the May 30 meeting. 

Gronstal Anderson said her organization wants to keep everyone accountable.

“They’ve used the nutrient reduction strategy to justify a lot of their regulatory decisions,” Gronstal Anderson said. “DNR has received a lot of public comments asking them to set numeric nutrient criteria and they declined based on the nutrient reduction strategy,” Gronstal Anderson said. 

“That is the policy of the state. So now if you have real data in a report that says not only are we not making progress that we are seeing an increase in nitrogen export coming from the state, then all the weight that they have put on the Nutrient Reduction Strategy comes into question because it’s not working,” Gronstal Anderson added.

“If the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, as it’s been implemented, isn’t effective, then we actually have to take a hard look at our policy approach to water quality in the state,” Gronstal Anderson said. “What can we do differently? We hear a lot that the voluntary approach is working and we’ll sign up more people and we’ll do all these things and there’s no evidence or indication that that’s an effective policy approach.”

One key DNR staffer told Gronstal Anderson in a private meeting that the amount of data used in the report has grown, and the complexity is lengthening the time needed for analysis. 

But Gronstal Anderson and Michael Schmidt, IEC’s general counsel, said the state has been doing the report long enough that shouldn’t bog down the work. “They have been putting this report together for a while,” Schmidt said. “You would think they would have systems and a procedure for putting it together now, so the fact that it’s three or four months late doesn’t make sense.”

Impaired waterways report was also late

DNR recently sought comments on a separate “impaired waterways” report that was filed 19 months after the federal deadline. Another document, a federally required report detailing what the state would focus on over the next three years in its work to improve water quality standards came out in December 2019. That plan was due in time to guide work from 2018-20.

Tardy as it was, Gronstal Anderson noted, it also again was missing a commitment to set standards for some of the biggest pollutants in Iowa’s streams — nitrogen and phosphorus. The push for those standards has been on various environmental groups’ priority lists since the early 1990s.

DNR has endured a string of budget cuts going back a couple of decades. One official working on the “impaired waterways” report told reporters key DNR staffers were lost to budget cuts and staff changes as that report was under development.

The Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines serves as a water supply and a growing recreational draw.
The Des Moines River north of downtown Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented beginning in 2013, with an annual review of progress. The work has been largely under the purview of the resources and ag departments and Iowa State University. 

With farmers under pressure to make the voluntary conservation practices work — even as the environmental council and others push for regulations — data that show nitrate levels are rising. 

For example, the U.S. Geological Survey, a key source of information on water quality, has reported growing nitrate in the Mississippi River mainstem. The Mississippi is fed by the two large rivers bordering and draining Iowa — the Missouri and the Mississippi. 

But a recent report from the University of Iowa may have caught more attention. In his blog, UI research engineer Chris Jones, a longtime analyst of Iowa’s water quality issues, reported Nov. 7 that “Iowa is Hemorrhaging Nitrogen.” 

Jones reported that the nitrate levels in Iowa’s streams have doubled (up 100.4%) on average since 2003, based on rolling five-year averages. For the year ending Sept. 30, that amounted to 980 million pounds of nitrate — nearly 11 times the weight of the 887-foot-long battleship USS Iowa.

It is unclear if those data are in the draft report to be released in March.


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