Environmental group: Iowa’s waterway cleanup plan could take 22,000 years

By: - July 1, 2021 4:27 pm

Emerson Bay beach, to the north of this area of West Okoboji Lake, has a swimming-not-recommended advisory this week due to bacteria levels. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa’s work to clean polluted waterways is so slow it will take as much as 22,000 years to meet some of the goals in the state’s voluntary plan, the Iowa Environmental Council reported. 

The nonprofit’s latest review of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy — the backbone of Iowa’s water quality efforts — found the plan still isn’t working, in the council’s view. State leaders, including the agriculture secretary, insist the program is making progress.

The strategy, adopted in 2013, requires action by sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities. However, state regulators and lawmakers have steadfastly declined to regulate the fertilizer runoff coming from corn and soybean fields that dominate the Iowa landscape. Instead, they have supported programs that pay farmers to take actions to reduce pollution.

One contaminant, nitrate, has been suspected of causing cancer. Levels were so high decades ago that 500,000-customer Des Moines Water Works had to install special equipment that is expensive to run, utility officials have said.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers feed algae blooms in lakes and in the Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists suspect they worsen the algae toxins that Des Moines Water Works declared made the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for drinking water at times. 

Council summarizes problems

The council summarized the problems in its latest report, and issued policy recommendations.

“The short version is the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not succeeding in reducing the nutrient pollution problem in Iowa,” Ingrid Gronstal, the council’s water program director, said in a interview.

One indicator of water quality trouble mentioned in the council report: University of Iowa data showing the amount of nitrogen running downstream from Iowa had doubled since 2003. That despite efforts by state lawmakers and federal and state environmental and agricultural agencies to encourage conservation on farms and other efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.

Biologists call elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus “nutrients” because they feed crops and other plants. They are commonly found in farm fertilizers that have been traced to many of Iowa’s water quality issues.

Farm groups such as the Iowa Water Agriculture Alliance, based at the Iowa Soybean Association in Ankeny, have acknowledged over the years that progress on the strategy needs to pick up. They have called for more cost share help for farmers.

The alliance’s website calls the Nutrient Reduction Strategy “a science-based plan that will take decades to accomplish. Experience and research has shown that it can take more than one in-field or edge-of-field practice to reach nutrient reduction goals.”

Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig has said repeatedly that the state is starting to see more farmers use cover crops and other techniques. When American Rivers in April called the strategy into question and listed the Raccoon River as one of the nation’s “most endangered,” Naig called it “propaganda.”

“We are moving in the right direction,” Naig said.

In January, Naig announced a partnership with the Iowa Soybean Association and Quantified Ventures to encourage more farmers to participate in conservation projects.

“Using this innovative approach to incentivize producers to implement science-based conservation practices that fit their farms, we can scale up the number of conservation practices faster and make more progress towards the goals outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” Naig said in a statement.

‘Bureaucratic slowness’

The environmental council detailed what it sees as an extremely slow response to serious water quality issues.

“The history of addressing upper Midwest nutrient pollution is a story of bureaucratic slowness and failure to take difficult but meaningful action to address excessive pollution,” according to the report. 

A federal task force’s 2008 action plan called for a 45% reduction of the low-oxygen “dead zone” off Louisiana’s cost by 2035 and asked states to develop their own nutrient reduction strategies.

But Iowa isn’t spending the money necessary to get there, and it doesn’t have regulations to push the issue, the council reported.

Iowa lawmakers last session extended a program that will provide $282 million over the next 12 years. The latest state review of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy said $560 million in U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service funds were spent in Iowa in 2018-19. But the council said only $24 million of that was directed specifically at water quality projects.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was projected to cost up to $1.2 billion a year, in 2013 dollars. 

“The state must adopt a renewed sense of urgency to address water quality and take bold action to implement policy change. Without action, the situation will continue to worsen,” the council wrote.

The council noted that the rate of cover crop planting in Iowa has not accelerated since the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was adopted in 2013. The national Environmental Working Group this week reported that satellite images show Iowa’s growth in the use of cover crops has slowed.

Cover crops such as barley, wheat and oats help hold the soil in place and can soak up pollutants, in addition to sweeping at least a small amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

The council reported that Iowa in 2018 had 973,000 acres of cover crops, far short of the state’s goal of 12.6 million acres. 

“At the current pace, it will take 85 years to meet the goal for cover crops,” the council’s latest report noted.

It would take 942 years to reach the goal for creating wetlands. The state in 2018 had 107,000 acres “treated” by wetlands that can save soil and absorb pollutants. The goal was 7.7 million acres.

At the current pace, it would take even longer — 22,325 years — to build all the bioreactors called for by the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the council wrote. Bioreactors are engineered underground pits with wood chips that help naturally strip pollutants from water.

The NRS called for 6 million acres to be “treated” by bioreactors. In 2018, that number stood at 2,000 acres, the council reported.

‘Not a strategy’

The council said the NRS isn’t a strategy at all. 

“Calling the NRS a strategy is a misnomer. The portion of the NRS addressing nonpoint source (agricultural) pollution contains a list of conservation practices that have the potential to reduce nutrient pollution. However, the document does not include a strategy for implementation, benchmarks or timelines, or performance measures,” the council wrote. 

“There is no articulation of consequences for failing to meet the 45 percent reduction goal by 2035, nor is there any interim goal or trigger to re-evaluate the strategy and modify the policy if progress is not being made. In short, most of the elements one would expect from a strategy are not present.

“More broadly, the state of Iowa is far too lenient in its approach to (animal confinement, or CAFO) regulation and has become a safe haven for industrial livestock operations,” the report states. “CAFOs are allowed to be sited near each other in high concentrations, producing more manure than the surrounding landscape can possibly handle.”

The council proposed several policy recommendations in response to the state’s lack of progress on reducing farm-related pollution.

— Balance public health and other public interests with private land rights. “Based on data available from the last few decades, the state has largely abdicated its duty to protect Iowa’s waterways for the common good. Instead, dangerously poor water quality has become an externality of agricultural production that Iowans must now tolerate, pay millions of dollars each year to mitigate, and suffer untold adverse health outcomes as a result.”

— Set numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, the main ag pollutants. 

— Expand the current state law that requires individual Iowans to protect groundwater so that the regulations require protection of rivers and lakes, too. Nearly half of Iowans are getting their drinking water from rivers and lakes. 

— Assure that manure is not overapplied to farm fields. 

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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.