Panel: Farm policy changes needed as climate change worsens runoff pollution

Overcrowding is an issue at the Iowa Great Lakes. Shown is Miller's Bay on West Okoboji Lake on July 4, 2020. (Photo courtesy of David Thoreson).

Climate change is making Iowa’s water quality problems worse, including nitrate pollution and toxic algae, a panel of experts told the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council Wednesday. 

That means the federal government needs to change crop insurance rules and other programs that support we’ve-always-done-it-this-way agriculture in Iowa, they added. A return to more natural river flows and more sustainable farming practices would help, according to the panel.

The panel discussion came just before the official beginning of summer vacation season this weekend with the Memorial Day holiday and the beginning of annual beach monitoring at state parks. The council publishes a weekly newsletter on water quality issues in summer.

Sylvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa, said industrial agriculture is behind much of the pollution in Iowa lakes. That is in part because the nation’s crop insurance programs and other federal support encourage the standard corn-soybean rotation that has led to much of the pollution.

“It is environmentally and financially unsustainable,” Secchi said. “… We really need to think about subsidies and policies to help farmers become more resilient and to help the environment, to help the system rather than exacerbate these issues.”

Toxic algae, nitrate in water

Secchi said farmers are upgrading drainage tile because climate change has brought heavier rains, which could worsen flooding and nitrate issues. They also are being paid to farm on floodplains, she added.

The related pollution has caused Des Moines Water Works to fight both nitrate and microcystin, a toxin from blue-green algae blooms that have also led to beach advisories. Nitrate has been tied to cancer and other illnesses, and microcystin can cause neurological problems and liver damage.

Mary Skopec, who directs the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on the shore of West Okoboji Lake, said the federal government needs to move away from full-on endorsement of corn-soybean rotations. 

“What are the incentives for farmers to try different crops? We need to think about restructuring things … to adapt to the new climate regime,” Skopec said. 

David Thoreson, a professional photographer, sailor and world explorer, said he fell in love with the outdoors tromping along the Des Moines River near his boyhood home in Algona. He said many now don’t understand the seriousness of the pollution issue. 

Thoreson said Iowa needs to change its agriculture industry for many reasons, economic and environmental. 

“One of the adaptations we should make is to make the farms smaller and actually grow food that we can eat,” rather than funnel the grain into ethanol or use it to feed livestock, Thoreson said. 

Secchi and Thoreson both discussed a problem, perhaps worsened by the pandemic, of overcrowding in some of Iowa’s better parks and lakes. A good example are the glacial lakes in Dickinson County,  where Thoreson lives part of the year.  

Overcrowded outdoor attractions

“It’s so important for all families to be able to have healthy access to the outdoors and not just here in northwest Iowa and the Iowa Great Lakes, which have become really overcrowded, especially on weekends,” Thoreson said. “We are kind of loving our waters to death up here in the Okoboji area.” 

Read more: National parks brace for post-pandemic crowds

All the panelists supported using the restoration of natural river channels and some prairie to help clean waterways. Skopec noted a project on the north edge of Spirit Lake with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in which ag drainage systems were broken so water could run through natural vegetation before reaching the Iowa Great Lakes. Much of the runoff was eliminated. 

Secchi said federal crop insurance programs encourage farmers to keep working their land in the same way. “We really need to imagine the policy that favors a more resilient landscape, rather than reproducing the same problems, no matter how exacerbated these problems become,” Secchi said. She was referring to health-threatening nitrate pollution, for example. 

“This is not only environmentally unsustainable. It is also financially unsustainable,” Secchi added.

Skopec agreed. “There’s a lot of incentivizing that we really need to look at to adapt our agricultural systems,” Skopec said. 

The head of Des Moines Water Works recently said the utility will face a “catastrophe” if farm pollution isn’t reduced. 

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