A new forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the annual dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico will reach an area of nearly 8,200 square miles this summer, more than 50 percent larger than its average size.
This huge dead zone, the size of New Jersey, is directly linked to the excess nutrients flowing in from the Mississippi River watershed. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus flowing in from Midwest agriculture feeds the excessive algae growth that creates the low oxygen levels, creating hypoxia conditions. Iowa is one of ten Midwest states that is identified as a major contributor to the dead zone.
Iowa’s deteriorating water quality is further proof that voluntary conservation practices by Iowa farmers are failing to address this adequately. The number of impaired waters in Iowa continues to escalate. In 2012 over 50% of all Iowa water bodies were classified as impaired. The growing list (750 impaired water bodies in 2016) of closed beaches, poisoned wells, contaminated rivers and inedible fish demand that the Iowa legislature act aggressively. They must compel compliance by Iowa farmers with proven conservation measures that will reduce excess nutrients poisoning our water.
Yet Republicans in the Iowa Legislature refuse to do anything meaningful to reverse the increasing damage to Iowa’s water bodies. Iowa voters overwhelming voted to amend the Iowa Constitution in 2010, the first 3/8-cent of the next sales tax increase will be placed in the trust fund and spent on Iowa’s natural resources and outdoor recreation needs. However, the Republicans have refused to fund this essential conservation measure.
The Des Moines Water Works filed suit against drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties the utility claimed were funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River. The utility said last year it needed to invest about $80 million to remove nitrates to meet federal drinking water standards. It spent $1.5 million in 2015 to run its nitrate removal equipment a record number of days to ensure safe drinking water.
The Republicans in the Iowa Legislature retaliated against the Des Moines Water Works over its suit demanding a cleanup of the river. Led by Representative Jarad Klein, R-Keota, they introduced a bill to strip water utilities in Des Moines, Urbandale and West Des Moines of their independent boards of directors and instead shift control to their respective city councils.
In 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented a plan to combat nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, also called “nutrient” pollution in U.S. water bodies. The EPA required that states develop a nutrient reduction strategy to eliminate 45 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads emitted within states draining into the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2013, Iowa released a 204-page Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). It set the goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus discharges by 45 percent but set no target date by which to achieve these goals. It also depends entirely on voluntary compliance by the agricultural community to implement essential conservation practices. Republicans refuse to discuss anything beyond voluntary action by Iowa farmers.
Requiring mandatory compliance to the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) is essential. Voluntary compliance has resulted in a continued worsening of impaired waters in Iowa and a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Republicans in the legislature are refusing to acknowledge the urgent need to address Iowa’s critically impaired waters. They continue to rely on voluntary conservation measures and refuse to consider mandatory supervision, oversight and adequate funding.
The Iowa NRS was developed in response to the recognition that Iowa water quality is continuing to decline. However, the voluntary nature of the NRS is insufficient to provide the necessary impetus to reverse that decline. It has demonstrated that a comprehensive mandated overhaul of the NRS is required. The Iowa Legislature must provide the leadership to create an efficient and effective management model. It must set specific goals, a clear timetable for results and the funding to achieve success.
by Rick Smith
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