Slow progress means Iowa water quality goals hundreds or even thousands of years away, environmental group says

Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig says state will use new money to ramp up conservation

Cover crops grow in a field on Dick Sloan's farm in Rowley. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazet
Cover crops grow in a field on Dick Sloan’s farm in Rowley. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

An Iowa environmental group says it will take more than 90 years to grow enough cover crops to meet the state’s goals of a 45 percent reduction in harmful nutrients going into streams, rivers and lakes.

If you think that’s a long time, the Iowa Environmental Council estimates it will take 900 years to meet wetland goals and more than 30,000 years to install enough bioreactors to meet nutrient reduction targets set in 2013, according to a new report.

“These are generational or geological time scales we’re looking at,” Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, the council’s water program director, said during a news conference Tuesday morning. “How can we increase these implementation rates to a degree that would be significant?

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig disputes the report’s conclusions, saying new state money will allow Iowa to scale up adoption of water quality measures without making them mandatory.

“It’s unfair to suggest we’re going to continue to implement conservation practices at the pace we are today,” Naig said in a phone interview.

After starting with demonstration projects across the state, the Department of Agriculture and other partners will be increasing investments in proven practices, he said. Water quality legislation approved in 2018 provides $4 million for nutrient reduction goals this year and $15 million in fiscal 2021, Naig said. Iowa plans to use this to leverage more federal and private funding.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, drafted in 2013, charted a course for slashing nitrate and phosphorus in public waterways. The idea was to improve water quality in Iowa and reduce the nutrients washing down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where they have created a dead zone in which wildlife can’t survive.


The strategy outlined three scenarios to get to a 45 percent reduction in nutrients. The Environmental Council report looks at one scenario and determines, with data reported each year by the state, how long it will take for Iowa to meet the goal at current progress rates.

Cover crops

Iowa’s strategy says the state needs 12.6 million acres of cover crops, but the state only had about 760,000 acres in 2017. The Environmental Council’s analysis, which uses linear progression, says it will take another 93 years to grow the remaining 11.8 million acres.

Cover crops, offseason grains that help prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff, covered less than 4 percent of Iowa’s farmed acres in 2017-2018, according to the Environmental Working Group. Cover crops cost about $30 an acre per year and are estimated to reduce nitrate and phosphorus about 30 percent.


Iowa needs 7.7 million acres of wetlands to reach the 45 percent nutrient reduction goal, according to Scenario 1 of the 2013 plan, but has just 104,000 acres. At Iowa’s rate of adoption, it would take 913 years to reach this acreage goal, the Environmental Council reported Tuesday.

Wetlands costs about $10,000 per acre the first year, $780 a year afterward. They are estimated to slash nitrate by 68 percent and phosphorus by 43 percent.


Iowa needs 6 million acres of farmland to be treated with bioreactors, which are trenches of wood chips that can reduce nitrate in field runoff by 50 percent to 70 percent. Bioreactors installed in the state so far treat only 1,250 acres, leaving the vast majority of the goal left to go.

Bioreactors cost $10,000 to $15,000 to install, lasting about 10 to 15 years.

Time to make practices mandatory?

So far, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy has been voluntary, but the Environmental Council said its time for Iowa to consider making conservation practices mandatory through a “flexible framework in which farmers could choose with practices work best for their operations,” Gronstal Anderson said.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, introduced a bill last year at the Iowa Statehouse that would have established a pilot program for a mandatory riparian buffer, but the bill did not survive the 2019 session, Gronstal Anderson said.

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