Iowa's voluntary approach to nutrient reduction is doomed to fail

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) was chartered to decrease nutrients (nitrate and phosphorus-fertilizer discharged from agricultural land) in our rivers, streams and lakes by 45 percent in 2012. After two years, the strategy’s flawed approach for reducing agricultural sources of nutrients continues. The voluntary approach fundamental to the Strategy is doomed for failure. It lacks quantifiable and credible measures. It lacks time frames to measure progress. It lacks adequate funding. We have the proverbial three-legged stool with all three legs missing. Management of Iowa’s water resources will take commitment (including regulation), appropriate water quality measures, and sustainable funding.

Agriculture’s implementation of voluntary conservation practices, assumed to protect water quality, have been around for 30 years. Our national experience has taught us that water quality did not improve in this country until regulation occurred. It will take some level of regulation to achieve results from agricultural polluters.

Vital ingredients to water quality improvements include both regulation and monitoring. Improvements in water quality may take 15-20 years to observe substantial change, but currently no one is monitoring to establish baseline levels of contaminants. Even if water quality improves over the next 20 years, no one will be able to substantiate it. Proponents of the Strategy hint that some water monitoring may be occurring. If that is the case, reporting of the data should be transparent to the public, but Iowa’s laws allow important water monitoring data to remain confidential. The public should not allow government to spend tax dollars and hide results with no transparency or accountability. Public funding should require public disclosure.

This fall, the Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC) will release their second annual INRS progress report. The WRCC measures progress in the report by the number of meetings attended, presentations given, events, and the number of conservation practices installed. However, the number of acres where conservation practices are being removed is not considered. No one will be able to accurately or credibly determine the net number of conservation practices on the ground resulting in measurable nutrient removal.

Iowa has significant water quality issues. Funding efforts dedicated to support solutions are uncertain. In 2014, Governor Branstad vetoed $20 million aimed at water quality initiatives. Improving and protecting Iowa’s water resources requires the certainty of sustainable funding to implement long-term water quality solutions.

State government lacks the sense of urgency necessary to protect drinking water sources and give Iowans the ability to go swimming and boating without getting a rash or becoming sick. Setting and monitoring nutrient reduction targets by watershed is critical to reducing nutrients. State technical advisory committees, nutrient science advisers and others have been assessing and recommending nutrient criteria for rivers, streams and lakes since 2007. Yet we continue to put off setting numeric criteria because we need more monitoring and data analysis. When will we begin to take Iowa’s water quality crisis seriously? We simply cannot and should not wait until an event occurs in Iowa such as the one that recently happened in Toledo, Ohio, where approximately 400,000 people were without water for such basic needs as drinking, showering, and cooking due to toxins in the water from a cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie. The stakes are high. Iowans deserve action through regulation of agricultural activities.

• William G. Stowe is CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. Comments: stowe@dmww.com

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