Report: Voluntary efforts not improving state water quality

But some gains are being seen from farmers' efforts

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Voluntary conservation, the prevalent method in Iowa, is not making the state’s water any cleaner, according to a study released today by the Environmental Working Group.

“If we are serious about cleaning up Iowa’s water, we are going to need regulations” to curb damaging farming practices, said study co-author Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

The 52-page statistical analysis of Iowa water quality data, titled “Murky Waters,” concludes that Iowa rivers, streams and lakes are no cleaner than they were 10 years ago and predicts water quality “will still be poor 10 years from now, given business as usual.”

The critique of voluntary conservation comes just weeks after state leaders announced the Iowa Nutrient Management Strategy, which is intended through voluntary conservation practices to greatly reduce the volume of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer washed into state waters from farm fields.

“I can’t see how a voluntary program would yield the necessary amount of change in the way we farm,” said Susan Heathcote, water programs coordinator for the Iowa Environmental Council.

In today’s report, the EWG analyzed Iowa Water Quality Index data — nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria among nine total parameters — from 98 stream monitoring sites, including 10 on the Iowa River, nine on the Cedar and four on the Wapsipinicon.

To account for variations in weather and stream flow, the analysts averaged data for two 36-month periods — from October 1999 to September 2002 and from October 2008 through September 2011.

Their calculations showed that, on average, 60 percent of the sites were in either poor or very poor condition, that 39 percent were rated fair, that no stream segment was rated excellent, and only one, the Chariton River downstream of Lake Rathbun, was rated good.

“Relying solely on paying farmers who volunteer to apply conservation practices has failed to clean up Iowa’s streams and rivers. Common sense regulation is desperately needed,” the EWG report said.

Bill Northey, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, one of the agencies that developed the Iowa strategy, said a science-based voluntary approach to conservation “is a better alternative than one-size-fits-all regulation that limits choices.”

Northey told farmers gathered in Des Moines last week for the annual meeting of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation that they can expect regulation if they don’t substantially reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus escaping their fields.

“You can’t require 90,000 farms on widely varying soil types all to do X, Y and Z and expect it to work,” said Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau. “The strategy’s science assessment shows it will take a specific set of practices tailored to each farm.”

Robinson cautioned that controlling runoff from non-point pollution sources such as farm fields is limited by available funding, weather, soil types and tillage practices, and that progress might not be as rapid and dramatic as hoped.

Iowa farmers are becoming increasingly aware, he said, that if they can’t make voluntary conservation practices work, they will likely face legislation or regulation through the courts.

Increased public demand for clean water will put additional pressure on everyone to make the strategy succeed, said Kevin Baskins, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which also helped develop the strategy.

Contrary to the assertions of environmental advocacy groups, Iowa farmers have made considerable progress in reducing pollution of Iowa waters, Robinson said.

Citing a USDA National Resources Inventory report, Robinson noted that soil erosion in Iowa had been reduced 33 percent from 1982 through 2007.

A 2008 University of Iowa survey of rural well water in the state showed a reduction in herbicides and an 11 percent reduction in nitrates during the preceding 20 years, Robinson said.

Iowa and Mississippi are the first two of 12 states, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency, to develop a state nutrient reduction strategy not only to clean up the state’s waters but also to address the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” Farm pollution from fertilizer and manure, with the leading shares coming from Iowa and Illinois, contributes 70 percent of the nitrate that is depleting oxygen and imperiling aquatic life in the Gulf.

Northey said his agency has asked the Legislature for $2.4 million in fiscal year 2014 and $4.4 million in the following year to fund cost-share conservation projects.

Iowa Policy Project Director David Osterberg, a former legislator, said Iowa consistently underfunds water quality. A report issued in March by the group reported a 25 percent decline in water quality funding since 2002.

Osterberg said the state ought to “mandate and figure out a way to pay for” the implementation of vegetation buffer strips along waterways to filter phosphorus and strategically placed wetlands to filter nitrogen.

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