Iowa Can Fix Its Water Quality Problem, But ‘Voluntary’ Actions Limit Progress

Every other year the Environmental Protection Agency requires states list which bodies of water don’t meet federal standards. In Iowa, that list had 584 entries.

Iowa’s water quality is impacted mostly by manure and pesticide runoff from agriculture, meaning E. Coli and toxic bacteria that look like—and are called—algae blooms.

Already, four beaches in Iowa are under advisory.

It isn’t a problem without solutions though. The state has a program to manage water quality, and conservation practices can go a long way towards improving the situation.

Imperfect Solutions

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is meant to manage those pollution levels for the state of Iowa, and it’s managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Iowa State University.

But it’s complicated, and flawed, according to Adam Schneiders, the water quality resource coordinator at the Iowa DNR.

“There’s a lot of different approaches that can be done to try to address nutrients,” he said. “And you’ll see that lots of states have a lot of different approaches to try to reduce nutrient levels to meet local water quality goals.”

In Iowa, where the landscape and agriculture are the main problems, the best mitigation methods are in-field and edge-of-field, he said. Those include: nitrogen inhibitors, cover crops, changes to tilling, wastewater bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands to filter pollutants before they reach the waterway.

Strategies have developed and improved since Iowa’s was conceptualized based on EPA and Clean Water Act frameworks. But implementing some strategies can be a struggle because they’re newer and voluntary, so convincing farmers to use them isn’t always easy.

There is no deadline for reaching goals or real idea for what progress looks like, either. For the most part, Schneiders said, success is in the eye of the beholder and progress is slow. There’s also an ambitious goal to reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorous leaving the state by 45 percent from levels in the 1980s and 90s.

“When the strategy was written, one of our scientists had mentioned that achieving these goals is technically possible, technically possible, but it’s a moon shot,” Schneiders said. “It’s a big lift to try to get to that 45 percent reduction.”

Part of the problem is that the strategy was written before the writers had a clear view of the problem in Iowa, before they had resources to fit the goal and before newer, better strategies were known.

Making Real Progress

More concrete action should be taken to actually make progress and to make it faster, said Alicia Vasto, the water program associate director at the Iowa Environmental Council.

“Our position is that many of these voluntary strategies need to become mandatory because often voluntary means you can choose not to do anything,” she said. “The conservation practices are kind of a Band-Aid or they allow farming to stay the kind of status quo of what has always been done. So we need to do more than that to actually see reductions in nutrient pollution.”

In 2019, the group released a report showing it would take Iowa hundreds of years to clean its water at its current pace.

Vasto said Iowa lacks the political will to legislate these changes. She said the laws are too weak to protect Iowa’s water quality as they are, and some standards need to be set to improve water quality.

“I think that there are state lawmakers that really take this issue seriously and want to address it, but there are not enough of them to be able to actually do anything about it in the state legislature,” she said.

The Environmental Council has a lot of suggestions for improving the situation, which they laid out in a recent report. Some of those include restoring the balance between public and private rights, establishing an individual duty to protect surface water, like Iowa Code does for groundwater, regulating concentrated livestock operations and manure practices and adopting more concrete standards.

Polk County has recently stepped up to more firmly address water management, with a program to rapidly build the saturated buffers and bioreactors that will help curb runoff.

“When it comes to water quality in the state, we need to have a balanced approach between both public and private interests, and we need to have a balanced approach to how we’re handling water quality,” Vasto said. “So that would be, you know, carrots and sticks. So having incentives and helping create a transition to a more sustainable agricultural system, but also having those requirements and regulations where necessary to ensure that we’re protecting the public good.”


by Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 6/18/21

2 Comments on "Iowa Can Fix Its Water Quality Problem, But ‘Voluntary’ Actions Limit Progress"

  • ARRRGH! It really is time for Iowans to blast, burn down, and laugh loudly at the notion that the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a strategy. It is NOT a strategy.

    The “Strategy,” so-called, is partly a good research-based analysis of why Iowa water quality is so horrible. (And the biggest reason by far is farm pollution, what a surprise.) And then comes a list of farm conservation practices that farmers and landowners could implement to reduce farm pollution if they just happened to maybe feel like perhaps doing that. Most, so far, don’t.

    No wonder progress is so slow. The alleged strategy part of the Strategy has no timelines, no deadlines, no standards, no implementation structure, no progress measuring system, no sociological methodology, and not even a good statewide transparent water-quality testing plan. Zip, rien, nada. Nothing.

    The strategy part of the Strategy is wishful thinking, crossed fingers, and most important, a political excuse for kicking the water-quality can waaaaaaay down the road by yelling “Looky! Woot woot! We have a nutrient reduction strategy now! So shut up, annoying Iowa citizens who keep whining about nitrates!”

    In private, some Iowa water people will say that the strategy part of the Strategy is kind of a farce. But not in public, where they would risk their jobs. And I certainly don’t blame the ones who are doing their best to make progress in a system that, to put it politely, isn’t designed to make real progress easy.

    For interesting expert commentary about Iowa water quality issues, try the Chris Jones blog on the U of I website.

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