Jennifer Terry 11:05 p.m. CDT March 9, 2015
Iowans have been hearing a lot about the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and efforts to achieve measurably cleaner water. These discussions have received increased attention lately with the Des Moines Water Works’ decision to issue a notice of intent to sue the board of supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties over nitrate pollution from farm drainage tiles.
The Des Moines Water Works action and resulting discussions have raised a lot of questions, and left many Iowans searching for answers.
The NRS is a science-based strategy developed by a state government team including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University to reduce the amount of Iowa’s nitrogen and phosphorus pollution going to the Mississippi River by 45 percent. The NRS was released nearly two years ago and, judging by some of the talk surrounding the strategy lately about “exciting momentum,” “strong upturns in awareness,” and “dropping nitrate levels,” you might think we’re closing in on our goal. The numbers tell a different story.
This fall and winter, nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers — the two rivers that supply drinking water to half a million people in the greater Des Moines area — were the highest experts had ever seen for that time of year. On Dec. 4, the Water Works had no choice but to start a costly nitrate-removal process to ensure the water it provides to central Iowans is clean and safe to drink. The nitrate-removal facility has been running ever since.
According to the NRS, 92 percent of Iowa’s nitrogen pollution delivered to the Mississippi comes from farmland. In 2014, Iowa farmers planted nearly 100,000 acres of cover crops to reduce nitrogen losses to water. This is certainly nothing to shrug at. However, when you compare that with the 12 million acres of cover crops the NRS suggests may be needed, we are less than 1 percent of our way to reaching our cover-crop goal. That is just one of many conservation practices called for in the NRS.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has asked for $7.5 million for water-quality initiatives per year over the next two years. But the kind of sweeping change called for in the strategy will take a substantial, long-term investment. Rather than year-to-year appropriations subject to annual budget negotiations, Iowa needs a long-term, stable funding mechanism to adequately fund the increase in conservation needed.
A Register Iowa Poll conducted last month found 63 percent of Iowans believe the Des Moines Water Works should pursue a lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa. Here’s how Iowa’s leaders may heed that call:
•Provide measurable evidence. Iowans need hard, scientifically verifiable evidence that the strategy is achieving measurably cleaner water. Require and dedicate funds to measure nitrogen and phosphorus in pilot projects funded by the NRS, evaluate the data and make it available to the farmers, landowners and the public. If we’re all in this together, then we should all have access to data at the watershed level that does not identify individual farms.
•Provide stable funding. Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Legislature must advance and approve sustained funding for conservation. Funding Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would provide consistent, reliable funding for conservation, the vast majority of which would be designated for water quality improvement projects.
•Set a timeline with local goals and benchmarks. It will take many years to achieve our pollution reduction goal, but setting a goal with no timeline for completion and no benchmarks to assess progress is a recipe for failure. The Water Resources Coordinating Council, chaired by Secretary Northey, should consider setting an Iowa timeline with benchmarks for the 45 percent statewide reduction, which mirrors the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force’s new timeline for shrinking the dead zone in the gulf by 2035.
Instead of talking about “exciting momentum,” perhaps it would be more apt to recognize the magnitude and urgency of the challenge and focus on how we must strengthen the strategy. Iowans want answers, action and verifiable evidence that progress is being made to achieve cleaner water. Plans alone don’t solve problems, people do. Now, Iowa’s leaders must rise to the challenge.