Environmental groups to push lawmakers for regulations, money in battle against water pollution

By: - January 4, 2021 1:48 pm

Union Grove State Park beach near Gladbrook has had issues with algae toxins and fecal bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

Iowa environmental groups plan to push state lawmakers for new regulations and added spending on water quality after problems with beach bacteria, farm runoff and fish kills continued last year.

The calls for action come after algae toxins prompted the Des Moines Water Works to declare the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for tap water for nearly a half-million people

The next session of the Iowa Legislature begins Jan. 11. It is expected to feature another discussion of the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal by Gov. Kim Reynolds that includes a sales tax increase that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for water cleanup over years.

That proposal, which includes offsetting cuts in property and income taxes, went nowhere last year and appears to face stiff headwinds for the 2021 session. Environmental groups support using the sales tax to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund approved by voters a decade ago.

The Legislature will reconvene after a year that saw serious water quality issues and evidence the state’s efforts to do something about them fell short. 

One of the state’s largest environmental coalitions, the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, noted the state has been months late in filing required water quality reports. The documents showed little progress when they did arrive, council staffers contend.

Most recently, on Dec. 1, the state released a draft report on a list of polluted waterways that was supposed to be approved and submitted to the federal government by April 1, 2020. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has cited staff shortages for the delay. 

The so-called “impaired waters list” required by the Clean Water Act showed that 58% of the segments of waterways checked had fallen short of a state or federal water standard governing “intended uses” as swimming, fishing, or just supporting natural life, the environmental council reported.

“It’s disheartening, and quite frankly wrong, that more than half of the streams, lakes and rivers in Iowa aren’t suitable for one or more of their intended uses,” said Alicia Vasto, the council’s water policy and advocacy specialist.

The new list shows 1,300 waterway segments with 750 impairments. The 2018 list included 1,422 segments with 767 impairments. The list tends to understate water quality issues because under federal guidelines, a segment is removed from the list if the state has a plan to clean up the waterway, even if the pollution hasn’t been removed.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has called for a moratorium on new and expanded livestock confinements, plans a rally at the Capitol Jan. 12. 

The Iowa Chapter of Sierra Club noted that top issues with the waterways were excess bacteria, fish kills, algae, cloudiness, poor water chemistry and biological conditions that don’t adequately support life. 

The list “shows that a large portion of water pollution stems from factory farms and massive amounts of manure that is spread on the land across the state,” the Sierra Club said on its website. The organization joined CCI and others in calling for a statewide moratorium on new and expanded livestock confinements, an idea that has gained no traction at the Legislature and has not been debated in the chambers.

Hiding part of the story? 

At the beginning of last year, the environmental council took the state to task for being months late with a report on a voluntary program aimed at reducing farm runoff. The council suggested the state was sitting on the report because it didn’t want to admit a lack of progress on keeping nitrogen and phosphorus from farm fertilizers out of waterways.

Phosphorus levels control how much algae grows in Iowa lakes and rivers, and nitrogen is a key contributor to a lifeless zone on the Gulf of Mexico, which received Iowa pollution via the Mississippi River. 

At the time, council water program leader Ingrid Gronstal Anderson said she feared the state was delaying the release because the news on nitrate — a key pollutant and a direct health threat in drinking water — wasn’t good. 

Nitrate in drinking water can suffocate babies and has been linked to a variety of cancers and other illnesses. Des Moines Water Works uses one of the largest removal systems in the world to keep levels at safe levels, and other utilities use similar systems or the blending of water from several sources to do the same.

When the 2018-19 annual report on the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy came out on July 1, 2020, the state acknowledged a 5% increase in nitrogen loads since the baseline period of 1980-1996, noting “ongoing challenges related to nutrient reduction.” The same report noted an 18.5% drop in phosphorus losses in the same period. 

However, the environmental council’s analysis of the same data showed a 34.3% increase in nitrate load.

“There are numbers in that report that say that nitrate has increased,” Gronstal Anderson said. “And that’s despite all of these efforts since 2013 to try to get voluntary participation with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Not only are we not reducing nitrate export — it’s increasing.”

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson is water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

“You can sugar coat some of the items in the report but I think the main takeaway is that the policy approach to nonpoint sources is not working to reduce nutrient pollution in the state,” Gronstal Anderson said. 

She added that the council would support new state legislation to set basic standards for farms while continuing to offer incentives and cost share money to help cover the costs of the conservation work. 

Iowa agricultural groups have vehemently opposed added regulations. They maintain any attempt to limit fertilizer applications or to require buffer strips and the like would wind up in court, tying up money that could be used for conservation projects instead.

The state’s annual report notes that no-till acreage increased to 8.2 million acres in 2017, according to federal records. That amounts to 26.8% of Iowa’s crop acres, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture records.

The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the backbone of Iowa’s ag-related water quality work. It calls for a 45% reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus washing downstream from Iowa by 2035.

The environmental council, Des Moines Water Works and others have said the voluntary strategy is ineffective in curbing runoff pollution and should be supplemented with regulations.

The latest Nutrient Reduction Strategy annual report also noted that the state had seen increases in the number of farmers pursuing conservation practices and funding for related projects.

“I think they were candid about the data,” Gronstal Anderson said in an interview after the report came out. “I think the concern we have is how they contextualize the data.

“They have the numbers in there, but they’re not necessarily comparing them year over year,” Gronstal Anderson said. “And they’re not putting it into context on the total number of acres, that sort of thing. I don’t think it shows a full picture of progress or the lack thereof.”

In the annual report, state officials noted they are trying to understand why data show that farmers’ attitudes on conservation practices have changed little over the years. That situation has left Iowa and Illinois as two of the top sources of runoff pollution in the Mississippi River that disrupts the Gulf of Mexico’s lucrative fishing industry by causing a summertime “dead zone” each year. 

The environmental council contends that lack of attitude adjustment is more evidence regulations are needed.

The council has pushed the state to be more pointed in its conservation efforts. “With abundant time and significant taxpayer money invested in cost-share programs, Iowans have the right to hold reasonable expectations for the effectiveness of the state’s approach to nutrient reduction,” the council wrote. “So far, the state is not upholding its end of the bargain.”

When the annual report was released by Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the news release contended the findings “reveal increased farmer, landowner and community engagement, use of conservation practices and funding invested in soil health and water quality projects.”

Mike Naig is Iowa secretary of agriculture. (Photo courtesy of state of Iowa)

“Efforts to improve water quality and soil health are happening all over Iowa,” Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said in a statement. “We have more partners and landowners engaged in conservation projects than ever before. These efforts are resulting in progress being made, especially towards the state’s phosphorus-reduction goals.”

Naig noted, however, there is plenty of work left to do. “We acknowledge more nitrogen-reducing conservation practices are needed. By tracking comprehensively, it helps us better allocate resources, and develop new approaches to guide the implementation of nutrient-reducing practices in priority watersheds around the state,” he said. 

State officials noted that education, conservation work and monitoring work amounted to a $560 million effort in 2018-19, up from $512 million in the previous report. That’s an increase of 9.4%.

When the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released in 2013, the cost of meeting the pollution reduction goals was estimated at $77 million to $1.2 billion a year, including  work at farms and at sewage treatment plants and other “point sources” of pollution. 

Federal researchers have found that 92% of the nitrogen and 80% of the phosphorus in Iowa waterways come from farms and other sources of runoff.

Beach pollution

Even during a drought that reduced runoff, the state posted warnings at park beaches 112 times in 2020 due to high bacteria levels. The 112 advisories compared with 60 in 2019, an increase of 87%. The high since 2014 was 136 advisories in 2015.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tracks bacterial pollution at state park beaches. (Graphic courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

High levels of algae toxins prompted 12 advisories. The state regularly tests for microcystin, which can cause rashes, intestinal problems and other illnesses. It is largely associated with blue-green algae blooms, which are common in Iowa’s shallow lakes.

The number of microcystin advisories fell to 12 from 21 the year before despite the state’s decision to use a tougher standard this year. The drought could have been a factor, the council said. And the 12 advisories in 2020 were still double the level of 2018 and more than double the number in 2017. The record since 2006 was 37 advisories in 2016. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tracks algae toxin levels at state park beaches. (Graphic courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

Altogether, 20 of 38 monitored state-park beaches, or 52.6%, had some kind of warning suggesting swimmers stay out of the water, the council noted. 

Advisories mean swimming was not recommended. Iowa does not generally close beaches due to high bacteria or toxin readings, in part because levels can change quickly and there is a lag in getting test results. 

“Due to the severe drought that (affected) much of the state this summer, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about this year’s advisory numbers,” the council wrote. “However, it hasn’t reduced the pattern that we see year after year – contaminated beaches that put swimmers’ health at risk.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.