Report: Iowa, states failing to cut nutrient pollution without EPA push
After nearly 20 years of inaction, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should push Iowa and nine other states along the Mississippi River to cut nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, environmentalists said Thursday.
The Mississippi River Collaborative said the EPA has failed to require “enforceable regulations, specific deadlines or funding” that would push Iowa and other states to take action to the gulf’s dead zone that’s unable to support aquatic life each summer.
“The results of the EPA’s hands-off approach with the Mississippi River basin states are massive algae blooms and nitrate contamination that make our drinking water unsafe and render lakes and rivers unfit for recreation,” said Kris Sigford, water quality director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a collaborative member.
The environmental collaborative, calling EPA’s efforts weak and ineffective, looked at clean-water efforts in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“Nutrient pollution remains a serious problem throughout the Mississippi River basin,” causing “noxious, smelly algal blooms, fish kills and a serious health threat,” according to the report, which represents 13 environmental and legal groups, including the Iowa Environmental Council.
The Mississippi River Collaborative report criticized the nutrient reduction strategies that eight of 10 states, including Iowa, have adopted. It said the finalized plans lack “the minimal building blocks necessary for the reduction of nutrient pollution.”
The EPA said Thursday said the agency has “called upon states and stakeholders to intensify their efforts” to address nutrient pollution, one of America’s “most widespread and costly environmental and public health challenges.”
But the agency said it “cannot solve nutrient pollution by top-down federal action,” adding that it’s working through the Mississippi River Hypoxia Task Force to push improvements, including providing $600,000 to support projects that can reduce nutrient loads.
Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, said the collaborative’s report, along with an Iowa Policy Project report also released Thursday, are devised to “create division, where in fact there is broad consensus on the need for action and the path forward.”
“It is unfortunate these groups try to scare the public to advance their agenda, rather than work with the thousands of Iowans who are committed to making changes to help improve water quality,” said Northey, co-chairman of the hypoxia task force.
He points to growing adoption of cover crops, saturated buffers and other conservation practices that help hold nitrogen and phosphorus in farm fields, as well as 45 watershed demonstration projects that are being used to test water-quality improvements.
The debate is key as Iowa lawmakers are expected to again debate funding next year that would help farmers scale up conservation adoption.
The collaborative’s criticisms echo complaints in a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit filed last year against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties.
The suit claims that underground drainage tiles in farm fields act as a conduit, funneling high nitrate levels into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 residents. The agency said it spent more than $1.5 million last year to treat the water so it met safe drinking-water standards.
The utility seeks federal oversight of the drainage districts, and indirectly, farmers.
Nutrient runoff from farm fields, urban lawns and streets is exempted from federal clean water laws, since the pollution can come from several sources. Discharges from businesses, factories and wastewater treatment systems fall under federal oversight.
The collaborative, which has sued the EPA over enforcement, calls on the federal agency to “drive progress” that will reduce nutrient pollution in the states, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
Among its recommendations:
- Require states to set limits on nutrient pollution in their streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. No state has set standards for nitrogen levels, the report said, and only Minnesota and Wisconsin have set criteria for phosphorus.
The report described Iowa as “moving backward,” resisting setting nutrient standards because they would result in “a substantial increase” in the number of waterways that are considered impaired — unfit for uses such as swimming or fishing.
Iowa had 130 nutrient-related impaired waters in 2014, the most recent data available, compared with 120 in 2012, the report said.
Overall, the state had 571 lakes, streams, reservoirs, wetlands and river segments with 754 impairments.
- Improve assessment and water-quality monitoring in the 10 states along the Mississippi River.
Only 1.6 percent of the 10 states’ rivers and streams were assessed for phosphorus and less than 1 percent for nitrogen. About 26 percent of the lakes were assessed for phosphorus and 1.4 percent for nitrogen.
“States don’t know if nutrients are impacting their water because they’re not assessing them,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at Gulf Restoration Network, a collaborative member.
In Iowa, less than one-third of its lakes had been assessed, and the state “lacks any process for assessing nutrient impacts to streams,” according to the report.
“The overall impairment trend for nutrient pollution in lakes is getting worse, not better” in Iowa, the report said.
- Require state nutrient reduction strategies to include goals, adequate funding, measurement metrics and timelines in their plans.
The group said the EPA’s approach to leaving “participation and implementation of nutrient reduction strategies up to the states” has been “ineffective in achieving any notable nitrogen or phosphorus pollution reductions.”
The collaborative said the EPA’s lack of action is resulting in “devastating effects” on water quality.
In Iowa, high levels of microcystins, a toxin produced by some forms of blue-green algae blooms, challenged Davenport and Moline, Ill., utilities that tap the Mississippi River for drinking water last year.
“The cities were fortunate that their filter systems were able to remove the toxins to safe levels,” the report said, “but it was a close call.”
Des Moines Water Works also said it detected elevated microcystin levels in the Raccoon River over a couple days in August, prompting the utility to switch to the Des Moines River for drinking water. Toxin levels were below safe drinking water guidelines, it said.
High microcystin levels that came with severe algae blooms in Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s drinking water system during a weekend in 2014.
Susan Heathcote, the Iowa Environmental Council’s water program director, said state lawmakers should consider adding “accountability mechanisms” like those outlined in the collaborative’s report when it considers funding water quality improvements next year.
The council and several other environmental and ag groups support increasing the sales tax three-eighths of one cent to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a constitutionally protected initiative Iowa voters approved in 2010.
The sales tax would generate about $180 million annually, a large chunk of which could be earmarked for water quality.
If financing is created, “we need to pair that with good accountability measures so we can tell the taxpayers that these dollars are being invested wisely — that we have a plan” that achieves results, said Heathcote, adding she’s optimistic water quality will find bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature next year.
Challenging strategy gains
The Iowa Policy Project Thursday questioned gains made under Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan designed to cut by 45 percent the nitrogen and phosphorus levels that leave rural and urban areas in Iowa and contribute to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone each summer.
The Iowa City research group said the state is “overstating its progress” in implementing practices that reduce pollution. For example, the state said in its 2015-16 annual report that farmers planted 125,000 more cover crops, pushing the total to 400,000 acres. But David Osterberg, one of the report’s authors, said it will take 100 years “to protect half the row cropland currently in production.”
He also pointed to a state poll indicating that 40 percent of farmers spent $5,000 or less on conservation over 10 years.
The state reported that $122.6 million had been invested in nutrient reduction efforts, cutting nitrogen loads by 3.8 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus by 217,884 pounds.