Environmental group: Iowa’s waterway clean-up plan could take 22,000 years
Iowa’s work to clean up polluted waterways is so slow that it will take up to 22,000 years to meet some of the state’s voluntary plan goals, the Iowa Environmental Council reported.
The nonprofit’s latest review on Nutrient reduction strategy – the backbone of Iowa’s water quality efforts – found that the plan still doesn’t work, the council says. Heads of state, including the Agriculture Secretary, insist the program is moving forward.
The strategy, adopted in 2013, requires the intervention of wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities. However, state regulators and lawmakers have consistently refused to regulate fertilizer runoff from the corn and soybean fields that dominate the Iowa landscape. Instead, they supported programs that pay farmers to take action to reduce pollution.
A contaminant, nitrate, has been suspected of causing cancer. Levels were so high decades ago that 500,000 customers of Des Moines Water Works had to install special equipment that was expensive to operate, utility officials said.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers fuel algal blooms in lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists suspect they worsen algae toxins that Des Moines Water Works said make the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for drinking water at times.
Council sums up the issues
The council summarized the issues in its latest report and made policy recommendations.
“The short version is that the nutrient reduction strategy is failing to reduce the nutrient pollution problem in Iowa,” Ingrid Gronstalthe council’s water program director said in an interview.
One indicator of water quality issues mentioned in the council’s report: University of Iowa data showing the amount of nitrogen downstream from Iowa has doubled since 2003. This despite efforts by state lawmakers and federal and state environmental and agricultural agencies to encourage on-farm conservation and other efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.
Biologists call things like nitrogen and phosphorus “nutrients” because they nourish crops and other plants. They are commonly found in agricultural fertilizers which have been attributed to many Iowa water quality problems.
Farmer groups such as the Iowa Water Agriculture Alliance, based at the Iowa Soybean Association in Ankeny, have recognized over the years that progress on the strategy needs to accelerate. They asked for more cost-sharing assistance for farmers.
The alliance’s website calls the nutrient reduction strategy “a science-based plan that will take decades to accomplish.” Experience and research have shown that it can take more than one field or border practice to achieve nutrient reduction goals.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig has repeatedly said the state is starting to see more and more farmers using cover crops and other techniques. When American Rivers in April questioned the strategy and listed the Raccoon River as one of the “most endangered” in the country, Naig called it “propaganda.”
âWe are moving in the right direction,â 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.
“By using this innovative approach to incentivize producers to implement science-based conservation practices that are appropriate for their farms, we can increase the number of conservation practices faster and further progress towards the goals outlined in the conservation strategy. nutrient reduction, âNaig said in a statement. .
The environment council detailed what it sees as an extremely slow response to serious water quality problems.
“The story of tackling nutrient pollution in the upper Midwest is one of bureaucratic slowness and failure to take difficult but meaningful action to tackle excessive pollution,” the report said.
A federal task force’s 2008 action plan called for a 45% reduction in Louisiana’s low-oxygen “dead zone” cost by 2035 and called on states to develop their own reduction strategies. nutrients.
But Iowa isn’t spending the money to make it happen, and it doesn’t have regulations to move the issue forward, the council reported.
Iowa lawmakers extended last session a program that will provide $ 282 million over the next 12 years. The state’s latest review of the nutrient reduction strategy indicated that $ 560 million in US Natural Resources Conservation Service funds were spent in Iowa in 2018-19. But the council said only $ 24 million was intended specifically for water quality projects.
The nutrient reduction strategy was expected to cost up to $ 1.2 billion per year, in 2013 dollars.
âThe state needs to embrace a renewed sense of urgency to deal with water quality and take bold steps to implement policy change. Without action, the situation will continue to worsen, âthe 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 Environment Task Force reported this. week that satellite images show that Iowa’s growth in cover crop use has slowed.
Cover crops such as barley, wheat, and oats help hold the soil in place and can absorb pollutants, in addition to sweeping at least a small amount of carbon out of the atmosphere.
The council reported that in 2018, Iowa had 973,000 acres of cover crops, well below the state’s target of 12.6 million acres.
“At the current rate, it will take 85 years to reach the target for cover crops,” notes the council’s latest report.
It would take 942 years to reach the goal of creating wetlands. The state in 2018 had 107,000 acres “treated” with wetlands that can save soil and absorb pollutants. The target was 7.7 million acres.
At the current rate, it would take even longer – 22,325 years – to build all of the bioreactors called for by the nutrient reduction strategy, the council wrote. Bioreactors are underground pits designed with wood chips that help naturally remove pollutants from the water.
The NRS has 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 is not a strategy at all.
âCalling the NRS a strategy is a misnomer. The part of the NRS dealing with non-point source (agricultural) pollution contains a list of conservation practices that have the potential to reduce nutrient pollution. However, the document does not include an implementation strategy, benchmarks or timelines, or performance measures, âthe board wrote.
âThere is no articulation of the consequences of failing to meet the 45% reduction target by 2035, nor any intermediate target or trigger to reassess strategy and change policy if progress is not made. made. In short, most of the elements expected from a strategy are not present.
âMore broadly, the state of Iowa is far too lenient in its approach to regulation (animal containment or CAFO) and has become a haven for factory farming operations,â the report said. âCAFOs are allowed to be located close to each other at high concentrations, producing more manure than the surrounding landscape can handle. “
The council offered several policy recommendations in response to the state’s lack of progress in reducing pollution from farms.
– Balance public health and other public interests with private land rights. âBased on the data available over the past 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 the Iowans must now tolerate, pay millions of dollars each year to mitigate it, and suffer adverse health consequences. “
– Establish numerical standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, the main agricultural pollutants.
– Extend current state law that requires residents of Iowa to protect groundwater so that regulations also require the protection of rivers and lakes. Almost half of the people in Iowa get their drinking water from rivers and lakes.
– Make sure that manure is not applied excessively in agricultural fields.