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Most Iowans favor fertilizer tax to improve water quality, but farmers prefer recreation fees, new survey shows
Farmers less likely than public overall to say excess nutrients come primarily from ag runoff
A majority of Iowans favor a fertilizer tax to pay for water quality improvements in the state, while farmers prefer a recreational fee such as an admission charge at Iowa’s state parks, a new study found.
The results come from a survey of more than 1,300 Iowans presented in a new policy brief from the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University.
“We hope this will help legislators (and) extension educators put more effort into educating the general public, not just in the agricultural industry, about the importance of nutrient reduction and the efforts represented in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” said Wendong Zhang, an assistant professor in economics at ISU and co-author of the paper with Yau-Huo (Jimmy) Shr, of the National Taiwan University.
ISU’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology in 2019 surveyed 858 Iowans from across the state about their knowledge of water quality issues and their opinions about how to pay for cleaning up rivers and lakes. The same survey was completed by 480 Iowa farmers in 2020.
Several survey questions hit on how Iowans feel about the importance of water quality in Iowa’s lakes and in the water flowing from Iowa farm fields into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico, where there is an oxygen-deprived dead zone caused by excess phosphorus and nitrate.
Two-thirds of public respondents said the importance of reducing nutrients in Iowa’s waterways is very important or extremely important, compared with 43.5 percent of farmers in the survey. And more than 70 percent of the public said having no or minimal algal blooms or scum in Iowa lakes is important or extremely important, while only 37.6 percent of farmers felt the same way.
Excess nutrients in water can cause an overgrowth of algae, some of which generate toxins that can sicken swimmers and dogs. In June 2019, a child was sickened by microcystin after swimming at the beach at Green Valley State Park, near Creston in southwest Iowa, the state Public Health Department confirmed.
Sixty percent of the public respondents said the primary source of excess nutrients in Iowa’s lakes is agriculture, rather than stormwater, municipal wastewater or industrial wastewater. About half that, 32 percent, of the farmers who took the survey pointed at their own industry as the source of excess nutrients.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and ISU, which developed the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, found about 90 percent of nitrate pollution and 60 percent of phosphorus pollution in the state comes from nonpoint sources including agriculture.
When asked the best way to fund nutrient reduction, 52 percent of the public chose a special sales tax on fertilizer for agricultural and household use. Iowa already charges the standard sales tax on fertilizer for residential use, but not agricultural use. About 25 percent of public respondents chose a recreation fee, 8.8 percent chose a fee on water bills and 13.6 percent said “another way.”
The largest group of farmers, 30.5 percent, chose a recreation fee as the best way to pay for improving water quality, with 21.7 percent choosing a fertilizer tax, 19.6 percent a water bill fee and 28.2 percent “another way.”
Only two Iowa state parks — Lake Manawa and Waubonsie — now have entrance fees. This spring the Iowa DNR increased state park camping fees for the first time in 20 years.
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