Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy: What is 'the rest of the story'?


Over the past year, Iowans have been hearing mixed messages about the state’s nutrient reduction strategy and its effectiveness in reducing pollution in our waterways caused by runoff from farmland. You may have heard that the strategy is already working, and that nitrogen and phosphorus pollution have been reduced.

But there’s more to the story, and the evidence is in our lakes and rivers.

This summer, 22 warnings to stay out of the water were posted at Iowa beaches due to toxic microcystin algae blooms — a direct result of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. And in 2013, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines had record high nitrate levels in their drinking water before treatment.

Iowa has a serious water pollution problem, and although the strategy is a step in the right direction, it will take a major leap to address the issues.

The strategy, which is voluntary for farmers, calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution leaving the state. However, Iowa’s leaders have failed to set a timeline for achieving these reductions, and the strategy sets no local goals for reducing nutrient pollution in Iowa’s lakes and rivers. Furthermore, the strategy’s pilot watershed projects have no consistent requirement to test the water to gauge whether progress is being made.

A statewide goal with no timeline and without a way to verify progress cannot be met.

We’re told that water quality is a priority, yet in June the governor vetoed $11.2 million for voluntary conservation programs and water quality initiatives. In order for the strategy to be successful, we must make a long-term commitment to fully fund the conservation practices that are necessary to meet our water quality goals.

Those that claim the strategy is working point to practice adoption as the measure of success. For example, you may have heard that as of December 2013, farmers had planted 88,000 acres of cover crops which improve soil health and reduce runoff. That’s true, and it’s a good start, but the strategy suggests that 12 million acres of cover crops — plus a host of additional conservation measures — may be needed to clean up our water.

We’re facing urgent threats to the safety of our recreation and drinking water, and if we want to get to the root of the issue, we must look at the full picture. The Iowa Environmental Council calls for these improvements to the strategy to ensure measurable progress in Iowa’s water quality:

l Set a deadline, with five-year interim benchmarks, for Iowa’s 45 percent reduction goal; then set reduction goals at the local level to clean up our polluted lakes and rivers.

l Fully fund the strategy — sustained funding to ramp up the landscape-scale changes which are necessary to reduce farm runoff pollution.

l Require water quality testing for all pilot watershed projects funded under the strategy to verify that conservation practices are producing cleaner water.

Proclaiming the strategy is already a success deflects the type of bold discussions and innovations these problems demand. Iowans want a quantifiable, verifiable demonstration that the strategy can achieve its goal for significant pollution reduction — not simply a marketing campaign.

l Jennifer Terry is an Iowa native and was raised on a dairy farm in Hardin County. She is an Agriculture Policy Specialist for the Iowa Environmental Council. Comments: Terry@iaenvironment.org

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