Drake prof: Iowa’s water quality approach is ‘magical thinking’

By: - July 31, 2021 10:00 am

The Mississippi River carries farm fertilizers to the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A Drake University law professor called Iowa’s voluntary program to ease farm runoff and improve water quality “magical thinking” designed to “deny and defer any potential action” and to prevent farmers “from having to do something.”

Drake law professor Neil Hamilton, former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center, told the Iowa Farmers Union Thursday that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not a strategy at all because it is devoid of hard targets and requirements.

Neil Hamilton is a law professor at Drake University. (Photo courtesy of Drake)

The document, essentially a menu of actions farmers can take voluntarily, has failed and the state needs regulations to control ag pollution, Hamilton said.

“One of the challenges of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is that it doesn’t ask or expect anyone to do anything,” Hamilton said. There are some specific actions required at sewage treatment plants, but the farm conservation and fertilizer applications changes are suggestions, many of them tied to additional cost-share payments to farmers.

The document was designed to stall, Hamilton said.

“The goal was essentially to delay and deny and deter any potential action on water quality, particularly if it meant actually having to do something or change practices on the land,” he added.

Water quality a major issue in Iowa

Water quality is one of Iowa’s most significant environmental problems. The Des Moines Water Works has declared the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for drinking water at times. Toxic algae blooms and high levels of fecal bacteria have led to “swimming not recommended” advisories at times. Fish are unable to naturally reproduce in many of the cloudy waters. Ratepayers spend more for water treatment plants to remove nitrate and other pollutants.

Environmental groups have called for regulations, and have filed lawsuits at times, claiming the strategy doesn’t work

Biologists call fertilizers “nutrients” because they feed plants.

The goal was essentially to delay and deny and deter any potential action on water quality, particularly if it meant actually having to do something or change practices on the land

– Neil Hamilton, Drake University professor

Most public policies have regulations backing them up to spur action, Hamilton said. “(The nutrient strategy) is built around the whole idea that it’s an entirely voluntary program, and in fact has built into it language that says there’s no role for regulation.

“That’s a rather unusual way to approach public policies in that regulations are one of the ways in fact that we deliver them. We set speed limits in school zones and we establish alcohol consumption limits. We don’t make those voluntary,” Hamilton said. 

‘Magical thinking’

Contending that voluntary programs will turn around Iowa’s significant water quality problems amounts to “magical thinking,” Hamilton said. 

“In this situation, the belief is somehow an entirely voluntary program is going to achieve some reduction. There is no history of being able to show that that’s ever worked, and so in many ways it’s largely an exercise in magical thinking,” he added.

In fact, the professor said, water quality has worsened and the amount of contaminants flowing downriver has increased since the state’s strategy was first issued in 2013.

One answer would be to raise $200 million a year for conservation actions by raising the sales tax to fund the voter-approved but penniless Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, Hamilton said. 

Even if the strategy’s goal is met and the state cuts its nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 45%, that doesn’t mean water quality would be noticeably better, he added.

“It isn’t necessarily saying that the water flowing through the stream through your town or by your farm is going to somehow significantly change,” Hamilton said. “It’s hard to look at a stream and say whether or not nitrates have been reduced by 30% or 45%.”

Fertilizers feed algae blooms, which can cloud water, limit fish reproduction, and consume oxygen when they die. In recent years, Iowa has battled toxic algae blooms which also are associated with farm runoff in some studies.

The strategy was developed after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for action across the massive Mississippi River basin to ease pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, where farm fertilizers disrupt a lucrative shrimping industry in a summertime “dead zone.” Iowa and Illinois, the top corn-growing states, are two of the biggest sources of the contamination in the Gulf, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.

Are Iowans serious about water quality?

Iowa appears to not be serious about addressing farm-related water pollution problems, Hamilton said.

“I think the truth is, we really aren’t serious about it. It’s hard to get around that conclusion, even though we have lots of happy talk and lots of people claiming we are making progress and we’re all doing all we can. I think the reality is most landowners would have trouble pointing to any practice they’ve adopted in particular to try to deal with improving water quality.”

Ag groups: Voluntary approach avoids costly lawsuits

Agriculture groups have strongly supported the strategy, saying the voluntary approach sidesteps costly and lengthy court battles that could hinder progress.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig has called American Rivers’ listing of the Raccoon River as one of the nation’s most-endangered streams  “propaganda.” 

Naig also has said that conservation projects across the state are helping. A spokeswoman said Naig was unavailable Friday.

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

What is the Nutrient Reduction Strategy?

Iowa State University, which led scientific efforts behind the strategy, describes the approach on its website:

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. It is designed to direct efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner. It is designed to direct efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner.”

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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.