Iowa’s water quality problems aren’t new, and they’re not going away anytime soon

Photo by Zak Neumann

Iowa may be the home of “fields of opportunity,” but those fields are often draining directly into an extensive system of underground tiles and then into streams and rivers, creating a costly problem for drinking water treatment plants and for others interested in maintaining clean waterways. Although Iowa politicians, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, have pointed to Iowa’s water quality as a key issue, critics say progress is too slow and current efforts don’t go far enough.

Many of the products applied to fields — including pesticides, manure and chemical fertilizers high in nitrogen — can be swept off of fields and into streams as runoff. And, for the most part, this runoff isn’t regulated or monitored.

Once it reaches a drinking water utility, nitrogen has to be cleaned out of drinking water because it can present a danger to infants known as blue baby syndrome. Recent studies have also shown possible connections between exposure to high nitrates and cancer.

At the start of the legislative session, both Republicans and Democrats spoke about their goals to improve water quality. In his opening speech on Jan. 9, House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow (R-Windsor Heights) called improving Iowa’s water quality “one of the great challenges we face.” He proposed continuing to build on a bill that passed the Iowa House last year that would have provided funding for water quality initiatives.

That legislation has been revived this year with bills in both the Iowa House and Senate — House File 538 and Senate File 482. As of printing, HF 538 has been referred to the Ways and Means committee (March 7) and SF 482 is in an appropriations subcommittee (March 9).

Critics say the bills don’t go far enough to require monitoring or metrics that would help measure the impact of funded projects. The proposed legislation also doesn’t create a new source of funding, but instead shifts funds that would have been used on infrastructure projects and draws from water bill sales taxes that Iowans are already paying.

“If you are going to say you want to get serious about water quality, you need to put money towards it and you can’t do that by taking money away from other budget areas,” said David Osterberg, co-founder of Iowa Policy Project and a professor in the University of Iowa Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Requiring farmers to take on conservation measures is more or less anathema in the statehouse. But Osterberg said that without requirements, the legislation will only reach the same group of farmers who are already using conservation practices and not the wide swath that would be needed to start making a dent in Iowa’s water quality issues. And, without monitoring, it’s hard to understand how beneficial funded projects are.

Voluntary efforts

In the debate swirling around Iowa’s water quality, the question of regulations and whether farmers should be required to control what is flowing off of fields is one sure to raise hackles. The 2015 lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works against three rural Iowa counties brought many of these tensions to the surface. The lawsuit cited the high cost of nitrate removal and sought damages from the water districts in the counties. (For reference: In 2015, the water works ran its nitrate removal facility for a record 177 days at a cost of more than $1.5 million.) The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in January that the districts could not be held responsible for damages, but the rest of the lawsuit will move forward and is set for trial in June. The suit riled many farmers, who see themselves as stewards of the land and argue that voluntary efforts, like cost-share programs, should be given time to work.

Last year, over $325 million in state and federal funds went to programs with water quality benefits, according to the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. The initiative was created in 2013 to help carry out the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is aimed at reducing the nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into Iowa waters by 45 percent.

As part of the Water Quality Initiative’s cost-share program, farmers can sign up for funding to support water quality efforts, such as cover crops and no-till initiatives. Cover crops — which grow during times when the soil would usually be barren — and practices such as no-till — where most of the soil is left covered with crop residue — can reduce soil erosion and nitrate and phosphate loss.

Over 1,900 farmers signed up for funding last year, mostly for cover crops. The program reported that 80 percent of the cover crop applicants said they planned to continue using cover crops in the future.

But, as Osterberg likes to point out, the issue is that Iowa’s agriculture is vast, and although many farmers are taking up voluntary conservation methods many more aren’t. Those farmers continue impacting Iowa’s water.

“I can show you great farmers. That’s not the point. The point is how do you get the bad actors involved,” Osterberg said.

Iowa has nearly 26 million acres in cropland, according to data from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. The Water Quality Initiative showed about 150,000 acres using cover crops through its programs in its January report to the legislature and about 3,500 acres using either no-till or strip-till practices. As Osterberg noted, that’s a big gap.

“No one even criticizes terrible actions, actions that you know are going to have an impact, such as fall tilling. If, first of all, you’re not going to require anything and, second, you’re not going to use moral suasion to influence farmers, then,” he trailed off. “If voluntary efforts could work or not is a fair question. But, from what I have seen, I’m not convinced.”

His suggestion: requiring farmers to take on two out of a range of suggested best-practices, such as those put forward by the Iowa Soybean Association.

“People know how to do it,” he said. “There are lots of good ideas. If people did more of those good ideas, we could solve this problem.”

A “slow-moving train”

Data on pollutants, including nitrates, in Iowa streams shows that this isn’t a new problem, according to Chris Jones, an adjunct associate professor and research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR — Hydroscience & Engineering (formerly called the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research). Jones, who maintains a blog examining water quality, has researched nitrates in Iowa’s waterways, as well as phosphorus and sediment loads.

Jones said that nitrates started to increase following World War II, with the emergence of chemical fertilizers, and then again in the 1960s, when farmers started abandoning traditional crop rotations in favor of soybeans and corn — row crops that can require significant inputs of fertilizer and other chemicals. Since the mid-80s, he said, nitrates have mostly plateaued — not getting significantly worse, but also not improving. He said nitrate loads in Iowa rivers are a “slow-moving train” and cautioned people against reading too much into brief improvements from one year to the next and instead focus on long-term data.

In the years to come, climate change doesn’t bode well for the future of Iowa’s waterways. Jones said warmer temperatures can speed up processes in the soil that allow nitrogen to leach out and warmer winters allow more water to flow through the ground, picking up nitrogen and carrying it to streams. Scientists also predict that Iowa will get wetter.

“The more rain we get, the more loss of nitrate to the streams that we will have,” Jones said. “Farmers are going to respond to wetter conditions by putting in more tile. The primary source of nitrate to our streams is tile, so we kind of have this triple whammy.”

Nutrient reduction efforts through programs like the Water Quality Initiative are a good start, but more needs to be done, he said.

“We know with a high degree of certainty that this corn-soy system is a leaky system,” Jones said. The tile system removes water as quickly as possible — and by removing the water, the nitrate, which is extremely soluble, is also removed. “The fundamentals of this system are really, really favorable to remove nitrate to our streams,” Jones added.

Switching up the crops that are grown to include things like alfalfa and oats could help take things a step further, but changing an industry that many Iowans rely on — from the farmers themselves to the equipment manufacturers and seed companies — won’t be easy.

Still, Jones said he remained optimistic.

“The last three to four years, the state has tried to confront this issue more aggressively than any time in the past 25 years,” Jones said. “There’s finally a recognition that what we’re doing right now — it’s probably not a good idea if we keep doing it forever. So I think there’s hope.”

Lauren Shotwell is Little Village’s News Director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 217.

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