Staff Columnist

Clean water? It's going to be a while, Iowa

Volunteers plant aquatic plants in the bed of a bay at F.W. Kent Park outside of Tiffin on Friday, July 12, 2019. The planting is one of the final steps in a two-year restoration project that aims to improve water quality at the 27-acre lake. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Volunteers plant aquatic plants in the bed of a bay at F.W. Kent Park outside of Tiffin on Friday, July 12, 2019. The planting is one of the final steps in a two-year restoration project that aims to improve water quality at the 27-acre lake. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Well, at least we now know what “over time” means.

Those are words you’ll find in Senate File 512, the “monumental” water quality bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2018. They describe when we can expect to reach Iowa’s goal of reducing the nitrogen and phosphorus running into our waterways, and on to the Gulf of Mexico, by 45 percent. It’s the big goal set out in our heralded Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The bill spends $282 million over 12 years. It requires no water monitoring. It sets no bench marks for success. But its backers contend it will push Iowa onward and upward toward its lofty water quality goal.

How soon will we get there? “Over time.”

“Don’t check your watch or even a calendar. Try a glacier,” I wrote in January 2018.

This week, we got a more informed estimate of just how long “over time” might take.

The Iowa Environmental Council released an analysis of how many years it would take to meet the 45 percent reduction goal under the nutrient strategy’s “Scenario one.”

Under that scenario, 12.6 million acres of cropland would be planted in nutrient-sponging cover cops, 7.7 million acres would drain into restored wetlands and tile drainage from 6 million acres would be treated in bioreactors, basically beds of wood chips where microorganisms remove nitrates.

The Environmental Council compared those goals to NRS data on the adoption of these conservation practices. At the current pace of adoption, it will take 93 years to meet the 12.6 million acre cover crop goal.

As for the wetlands goal, it will take 913 years at our current pace. But that’s not bad, compared to the 31,103 years it would take to install all those bioreactors. Downright glacial.

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Iowa has 26.3 million acres of cropland, but since the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was adopted in 2013, these three conservation practices have been adopted on less than 1 million acres. And the pace of adoption has slowed or remains flat, the council reported.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig told The Gazette’s Erin Jordan this past week that the Environmental Council’s estimates are “unfair” because money authorized by Senate File 512 will accelerate the pace of conservation efforts. No doubt he’s right.

But what are Naig’s estimates of when accelerated efforts will reach these goals? Will cover crops be covered by the turn of the next century? Wetlands in 500 years? Bioreactors in the year 2525, if man still is alive? I’m betting his estimate is “over time.”

The Environmental Council’s core point in all of this time travel is that Iowa’s underfunded and strictly voluntary strategy for cleaning up our waterways — with the added benefits of soil conservation, healthy beaches and flood mitigation — are not making meaningful progress. There have been some localized victories, but the big picture hasn’t changed much. The gulf “dead zone,” which all of this strategizing is supposed to shrink, will be big this summer, perhaps bigger than ever.

So the council wants the state to require farmers and landowners to meet a “basic standard of care.” In other words, take at least some basic steps to protect water quality. There would be much flexibility and many options, no one-size fits all thoughtless mandate. But doing nothing, or very little, no longer would be an option.

Beefed up incentives programs would be needed to help make it happen. Filling the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund with sales tax dollars would help.

These are reasonable ideas with merit. It won’t be easy, with absentee landowners, etc. But it’s certainly worth a try.

But, of course, they’re a nonstarter under the currently configured Golden Dome of Wisdom, presented by the Iowa Farm Bureau. The usual suspects will demand that the latest round of ineffective measures be given an opportunity to do precious little. Precious little will be dressed up as grand triumph. The conversation will continue. And while one side talks about dirty water, the other will be writing or collecting campaign checks.

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It’s really up to Iowans. Do you want to wait decades, centuries or millennia before Iowa gets truly serious about controlling a deluge of polluted runoff that fouls rivers and streams, clogs beaches with algae blooms and spawns health risks we’re just beginning to fathom?

I’d like to think the answer for most of us is no. I guess we’ll find out, over time.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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