‘Nutrient reduction strategy' is flawed

By Neila Seaman


If it weren’t so sad, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy released last month would be laughable.

The “strategy” was assembled by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa State University at the behest of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The reason for the “strategy” is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that floats through the Mississippi River watershed into the Gulf of Mexico and contributes to the hypoxia (more commonly known as the “dead zone”) there.

It is my understanding that DNR wrote the strategy as it pertains to point sources — cities and industries that treat wastewater before it’s discharged. Yes, there are still problems with point sources, but those entities are regulated.

What disconcerts me is that IDALS was responsible for compiling the majority of the sections related to non-point sources — agricultural and stormwater runoff and manure with, apparently, much assistance from the Iowa Farm Bureau.

According to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, nine states contribute 75 percent of the nitrates flowing into the Gulf of Mexico with Iowa contributing 11 percent of that. The Consortium reports that about 70 percent of the nitrates directly comes from agricultural runoff.

After two years of working on a strategy, the best they could come up with was “ … targeted voluntary conservation measures, in conjunction with research, development and demonstration of new approaches.” There are 197 pages in that document and that’s the best they could do?

The strategy has identified five categories of action items.

l Setting priorities.

Small watershed pilot projects and nutrient trading are included in this priority. According to the strategy, “Iowa has been working for decades to protect and improve water quality, with positive small watershed results.” Why would we need more pilot projects if Iowa has experienced positive results in small watersheds? Nutrient trading just enables continued pollution.

l Documenting progress.

That should have been done since 1998 when EPA first recommended that states adopt nutrient criteria (which Iowa never did). Iowa has received $3.3 billion from the federal government just since 1995 to reduce erosion and runoff. Progress should have already been documented.

l Research and technology.

Recommendations include new technologies and creative solutions, private and public funding for science and technology, and Gulf hypoxia zone research. We don’t need any more research. It’s very clear that Iowa contributes to the hypoxia that causes a large part of the Gulf of Mexico to die.

l Strengthen outreach, education, collaboration.

One of the strategy’s objectives is a farmer recognition program. Rather than rewarding farmers for doing the right thing — like we do school children — we should be working harder to get the bad actors on the right track.

lAchieve market-driven solutions.

Does that mean if there is a market for more corn requiring more fertilizer, it’s OK to continue polluting? Does it mean it’s OK to keep increasing the number of hogs raised in confinement because their manure is the new black gold?

The report bestows oversight and implementation to the Water Resources Coordinating Council, comprised of 19 state and federal agencies, in consultation with the non-governmental Watershed Planning Advisory Council. The WRCC was established by the legislature to address issues related to future flooding. It’s not the appropriate venue for implementing a nutrient-reduction strategy.

In summary, Iowa’s answer to reducing nutrients in the Mississippi River watershed is to keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s insulting to Iowans who expect their state-funded entities to protect our water quality to arrive at such an inane solution to a serious problem.

It’s time for Iowa to develop a serious solution to the problems created by runoff, particularly manure, and for Iowans to demand more from its governmental entities.

Public comments on the state’s nutrient reduction strategy proposal are being accepted until Jan. 4. Links to the strategy and to submit comments are available at

Neila Seaman of Des Moines is director of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter. Comments

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