Guest post from Jack Hatch on his upcoming book
Iowans have always loved their relationship with the outdoors. But when it comes to protecting our land and water, we can’t hesitate to conclude Iowa needs a fresh start.
A start propelled by an urgency to reclaim our land and water from decades of complacency.
More than sixty cities and towns are currently facing serious elevated nitrates in their drinking water and over 250 Iowa cities’ water infrastructure isn’t even capable of removing nitrates and are highly susceptible to becoming contaminated by nitrates and pollutants and many other contaminants like phosphorus (resulting in blue-green algae), E-Coli, etc. And in 2015, the Des Moines Water Works spent $7,000 per day to operate its nitrate removal facility for a record number of 177 days at a cost to the utility of $1.5 million.
In rural Iowa, there are over 300,000 Iowans that have private wells. Where 90% are never tested for contaminants and of those wells tested, over 15% have nitrate levels higher than the federal standard.
The results are troubling. The Iowa Environmental Council’s recent study reported elevated nitrates in drinking water which has been linked to health concerns that include birth defects, cancers and thyroid problems.
In 2009, the federal EPA required Iowa and all states bordering the Mississippi River to submit a Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) because of the agricultural chemicals poisoning our water and creating a “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing can grow or live.
There is a huge misconception that Iowa’s State Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a plan. It isn’t. It’s a broad strategy of goal-setting that was federally mandated and relies on voluntary participation from farmers, landowners, industry, cities and agricultural interests
Progressive Iowans want a long range environmental policy agenda, not incremental policy decisions that always seem disconnected. Iowa needs a decade-long program to move us out of our present day scorched earth policies. The Iowa Environmental Council stated, “We do need to invest in better water management in Iowa, but that means more than just reduction of nutrient pollution. The top cause of impairment to Iowa waters is bacteria and pathogens. A significant source of this impairment is livestock. There is almost no mention of livestock or manure management in the NRS – or other sources of these pathogens which also include unsewered communities and septic systems. In addition, any statewide plan must consider improved management of the landscape to hold more water and reduce the impact of these extreme rain events.”
While the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was created to satisfy a federal requirement, the Republicans seem to have had an epiphany in cleaning up Iowa’s water. Related to the EPA requirement for a plan is the law suit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) against three counties in Northwest Iowa that collected the discharge from the tile outlets and directed hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water into rivers from which countless cities obtain a great majority of their drinking water. The Des Moines Water Works stubbornly but rightly is seeking to protect the interests of their 500,000 customers.
The urgency can be expressed in raw numbers. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for building 7,000 conservation reserve enhancement wetlands, but the state presently has about 70; it calls for 120,000 saturated buffers and bio-reactors but Iowa has about 60. “How does the state go from a half-million acres of cover crops today to attain to the 12 to 17million acres that we need to meet the strategy?” asks Sean McMahon of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance. Simple answer! You don’t get there using voluntary compliance and you don’t arrive at a solution without a strong commitment to funding!
But recently (Iowans united on water quality efforts, DMR, October 2, 2016) IDAL Secretary Bill Northey claims that Iowa has enough financial resources to solve the problem voluntarily. However, in a comparative piece (How Iowa can win on water quality, DMR, October 2, 2016) Kirk Leeds of the Iowa Soybean Association states we can’t do it without new resources. Someone is wrong and it’s Secretary Northey.
The policy problem is that Iowa has a federally-approved Nutrient Reduction Strategy that relies solely upon voluntary compliance by about 85,000 farmers. It’s a complete farce, a “fig leaf” that doesn’t begin to improve the water quality dynamic in the state.
Governor Branstad and Secretary Northey have formed a PAC with the appropriate Orwellian name of “Iowa Partnership for Clean Water”, and ran TV ads against the DMWW and General Manager Bill Stowe. They declared that character assassination is fair game. The other message was equally as powerful – divert attention from the facts and make it about personalities.
Agriculture is and will continue to be the very foundation of this state’s economy. The steps we take together must be hand-in-hand to preserve that foundation.
This whole sordid tale exposes a massive failure of our state’s political leaders to do their job and come up with a comprehensive solution; progressive Iowans must take the high road.
A PROGRESSIVE PROPOSAL
Democrats should proclaim loud and clear that we can have clean water to drink, swim and fish, and we can have it in our lifetime. There is no more immediate priority than to reclaim our right to have clean water. It will take political courage but progressives require that from our legislators and our political leaders.
Now progressive Democrats need a comprehensive legislative proposal to the governor and General Assembly to include the following:
- If Iowa taxpayers are going to invest in farmers to reduce chemicals and create practices that improve profit and production, then we need mandatory compliance from all farm producers with the State’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Plan with a specific timetable.
- The funding has to be assumed by both the general public by funding the constitutionally passed Trust Fund and a fee on agricultural industry; including a stiff production fee on environmentally harmful agricultural chemicals like fertilizers produced in this state, as well as, a distribution fee on all agricultural products.
- Merge two state entities into one new independent agency as a separate state authority by incorporate the existing Watershed Management authorities and Soil and Water Conservation Districts. It would be managed separately from the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and DNR. Each watershed should be examined for pollutants and develop a plan tailored to address the pollutants in each watershed. It would be organized to finance projects from state and federal appropriations, including bonding authority for public improvements, provide educational enrichment to farmers and consumers and oversee the best practices and research necessary to effectively reduce phosphates in our soil and nitrates in our water.
- The legislature has to be totally committed to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and employ the “best practices” developed and used by farmers. We must use the Garst family Whiterock Conservancy data to insure entrepreneurial credibility and create independent research data, supplement the state plan with each watershed’s local plans and ask state commodity groups such as the Iowa Soybean Association and others to share their scientific data for a complete and thorough data base.
- We should contract with the Aldo Leopold Center at ISU to independently analyze the data and strengthen its own independent work with farmers.
It will take state commitment to assist the private-market farmer to implement the agricultural practices that are needed to improve our drinking water in our large cities, small towns and rural areas. Exciting the voters with cheap rhetoric and no money is a travesty. Iowans can handle the truth but do our leaders have the courage to speak it?
by Jack Hatch