Iowa sees positive trends, but slow progress in improving water quality

'It's going to take time and effort by a whole lot of people to accomplish this'

Water bubbles from the Upper Boyson spring in Marion on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Water bubbles from the Upper Boyson spring in Marion on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — State data released Tuesday showed positive trends toward expanded use of conservation farming practices, but officials say estimated cuts in nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients flowing into Iowa waterways were a drop in the bucket compared to the ambitious goals that have been set.

Iowa’s groundbreaking nutrient reduction strategy has targets for nonpoint sources statewide to lower the nitrogen loss by 126,000 tons and phosphorous loss by 4,800 tons to attain the goal of reducing nutrient load losses by 45 percent.

Iowa State University researcher Laurie Nowatzke presented data to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission indicating the estimated nutrient load reductions from practices conducted through cost-share programs totaling $112 million in 2015 were 3,830,000 pounds of nitrogen (or 1,915 tons) and 217,884 pounds of phosphorous.

Nowatzke, the measurement coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, offered the caveat that only selected practices could feasibly be incorporated into the calculations in the report available at, but hoped that improved practice data collection and development of appropriate units for the data will improve future calculations.

“While there’s progress, there is — in the wider perspective — a long ways to go,” said Nowatzke, who was encouraged by increased interest by farmers adopting cover crops and in-field nutrient management practices in the three years since the strategy was introduced.

“It’s promising. It just needs to be much greater,” she added. “It will need accelerated implementation, accelerated funding and action.”

Estimates indicate Iowa will need to invest billions of dollars over a long period of time for conservation measures to improve the quality of Iowa’s rivers and lakes. Leaders in government and private-sector organizations say the effort is going to require investments of federal and state tax revenues, private sources and farmers to accomplish the goals of reducing rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorus losses that pollute waterways.

Chuck Gipp, director of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), told commissioners the results showing single-digit changes in reducing nutrient loads shows how difficult the task of improving Iowa’s water quality is and will continue to be.

“We’re talking landscape scale,” Gipp said. “It’s going to take a while to get it done. We’re an impatient society. We think we can invest a dollar today and get a dollar’s worth accomplished tomorrow, but it’s going to take time and effort by a whole lot of people to accomplish this goal.”

Nowatzke noted Iowa boosted funding for the nutrient reduction strategy by $10 million to $122.67 million in 2016. The commission voted Tuesday to approve a “status-quo” state DNR budget recommendation to the governor of $104.1 million that included a $16 million appropriation for REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection) but no line item for water quality, which Gipp said usually is included in the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s budget request.

The federal government has ordered Iowa to remove from its waterways harmful pollutants that are flowing into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, where marine life in large areas in the gulf is dying because of a lack of oxygen in the water. The state developed a strategy to clean its waters, but the report calls for $4 billion in funding.

In 2010, Iowa voters approved the creation of a constitutionally protected outdoor trust fund for conservation, resource protection and recreational purposes. But state lawmakers and the governor have not enacted a sales tax increase of three-eighths of 1 cent in order to deliver money to the trust fund, so it has remained empty since its creation.

The movement to increase the sales tax and finance the trust fund has gained some momentum among agricultural and business organizations as Iowa has encountered water-quality issues. An analysis by the state's nonpartisan fiscal estimating agency indicated a state sales tax increase of three-eighths of a penny would produce $188 million in fiscal year 2018 and surpass $200 million in fiscal 2020.

Last legislative session Gov. Terry Branstad proposed to share future school infrastructure sales tax revenue with water quality projects as a long-term approach that would not increase current taxes but that concept garnered limited legislative traction. He has since said he would be open to repurposing the penny sales tax for school infrastructure set to expire 2029 by continuing the tax and splitting the ongoing proceeds with five-eighths going to education and three-eighths going into a constitutionally protected natural resources trust that Iowa voters approved in 2010.

The GOP-led Iowa House passed an approach which would shift $478 million over 13 years to water quality projects from a water-metering tax and the gambling-funded state infrastructure account. The Iowa Senate did not take up the measure in 2016.

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