Three keys to fixing Iowa waterways

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Graham Gillette, guest columnist

A few days after the New Year, Gov. Terry Branstad unveiled a water-quality plan he called his “biggest and boldest initiative” ever. Legislators’ hopeful statements about water policy echoed through the Capitol rotunda. After a year of verbal threats, suggestions of legislative retaliation and being disparaged by television ads funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau, my colleagues at Des Moines Water Works and I were cautiously optimistic. Perhaps this would be the year words would lead to action.

It was not to be.

Decades of talk about curbing agricultural water pollution in Iowa resulted in a plan that relies on volunteerism. The U.S. has not relied on voluntary compliance to control industrial air pollution. It would be foolhardy to so in the matter of agricultural water pollution. Iowa’s declining water quality demands more than optional compliance.

Not only did talk not lead to action during this year’s legislative session, most proposals discussed were misdirected — the governor’s plan, another proposed by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and others put forth by legislators amounted to little more than money for farmers — money not tied to results. Reasonable standards and regulation must be part of any successful effort to reduce agriculture water pollution.

Effective action will consist of three components.

1. Stop pollution where it starts. Law and policy must ensure all water discharged into public waterways — regardless of whether from government, farm or other business — meets acceptable standards to protect public health.

2. A sustained funding mechanism linking dollars to permanent behavior change. All plans must include basic standards of care for all agriculture businesses — tailored to the landscape for maximum benefit.

3. Accountability measures establishing long-term responsibility for protecting the environment. The plans must include a timeline for pollution reduction requirements, benchmarks to assess progress, local watershed goals, and enforceable environmental protection duties. Scientifically verifiable water quality data must be collected, analyzed and reported, and made readily available to the public.

Iowa’s water did not suddenly become polluted. At the time the U.S. government was spending $375 million to build the Panama Canal, $300 million was being spent to drain Iowa’s wetlands, which once stretched across north-central Iowa. Thousands of miles of clay pipe, called tiles, were placed in trenches dug mostly by hand. These tiles carried groundwater to ditches. Ditches lead to streams, streams lead to rivers, and eventually this water empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

“Corn doesn’t like wet feet,” is a familiar farm saying. Landowners placed tiles a few feet underground in patterns specifically designed to whisk water away from crop root zones, the feet of crops such as corn and, later, soybeans. Iowa law made it possible for owners of adjacent land parcels to form government drainage districts. Drainage districts coordinated the planning and construction of the intricate systems to carry groundwater from the valuable farmland that arose from marsh.

Meandering streams and rivers were redirected, becoming straight channels to expedite the increased water flow. Verdant marsh became fertile farmland. Iowa’s agriculture industry boomed, but the boom came with an environmental cost.

Crops use nutrients found in Iowa’s fertile, black soil, but farmers must continually apply additional nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to meet increasing yield demands. Nitrifying bacteria found in the soil break this fertilizer into nitrate. Nitrate finds its way into groundwater. Most of this groundwater would not have moved or would have moved slowly under natural circumstances but, thanks to efficient modern drainage systems installed to keep the feet of crops dry, it now flows virtually unimpeded into streams and rivers.

High nitrate concentrations in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome, which decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin and can lead to death. Research indicates nitrate contribute to cancer, thyroid conditions and diabetes in others. These threats caused Congress to include a process for establishing standards for nitrate concentration levels in the 1974 Safe Water Drinking Act. Iowa’s rivers regularly surpass the federal regulation requiring drinking water contain no more than ten parts per million of nitrate.

Ending Iowa’s water crisis will require leadership. Iowa’s economy and farmers have profited for more than 100 years from human re-engineering that forever altered the land and waterways of our state. The bill for Iowa’s ailing environment and protecting human health from polluted water is past due. Draining Iowa’s wetlands took political capital, cooperation, and concentrated effort. Fixing the resulting problems will take nothing less.

We must demand more than talk from those we elect. It is time for action.

• Graham Gillette is chairman of the Des Moines Water Works. Comments: grahamgillette@gmail.com

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