Staff Columnist

Fewer impaired waters in Iowa, but impaired leadership remains

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

So Iowa’s new impaired waters list came out this past week. It’s chock-full of “buts.”

Some will proclaim progress. But that’s not necessarily true.

There are fewer waters on the new impaired list compared to 2018, with 99 lakes, river segments, streams and reservoirs removed from the 2020 list. But of those 99, 61 were removed not because they’re no longer impaired but because there is now a plan in place to address the problem.

Honey, I didn’t clean out the garage, but I have a plan. Check it off my list. What?

Department of Natural Resources staff assessed 1,300 waterbody segments for the 2020 report, but that’s less than the 1,422 assessed in 2018. Of those assessed for 2020, 61 percent of river and stream segments and 67 percent of lakes are impaired. That’s up, percentage-wise, from 2018 when 57 percent of assessed waterways were impaired.

“Impaired,” by the way, means waters don’t meet water quality standards for their designated use, such as swimming, fishing, maintaining aquatic life or serving as a drinking water source. And the list is a draft, with public comments being accepted through December.

The No. 1 impairment among lakes, reservoirs and wetlands is algae, with toxic blooms largely fueled by fertilizer run off from cropland. Bacteria was the top river and stream impairment. Another 96 stream or river segments were hit by fish kills, with 58 caused by livestock waste, pesticides and fertilizer spills.

But the impaired waters list doesn’t tell the full story of agriculture’s impact on water quality.

That’s because Iowa has no numeric water quality standards for nutrient pollution — nitrogen and phosphorus — in its waterways. A waterway could test high in nitrates, but in Iowa, that doesn’t count as an impairment. The only nitrate standard that counts in Iowa is the federal limit for nitrate in drinking water sources.

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State regulators and agricultural interests have long delayed and resisted setting a water quality standard for nutrient pollution. After all, what we don’t know can’t make them look bad.

In 2019, the Environmental Protection Commission rejected a petition urging it to set limits for nitrates, phosphorus and other pollutants in Iowa lakes. Basically, the DNR argued that setting actual standards would lead to costly pollution cleanups. And how would it look if we actually found out how truly impaired our lakes are? Not good.

But nutrients are the main event in the water quality debate. Iowa has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy aimed at sharply reducing nitrates and phosphorus flowing from crops into Iowa waterways and on to the Gulf of Mexico. There, nutrient pollutants spawn an oxygen-sapping dead zone disrupting aquatic life. Pity the shrimpers of Louisiana.

But the voluntary strategy has no requirements, bench marks to meet or intermediate boxes to check. It doesn’t require farmers to put even basic conservation measures in place. They can still grow crops in frequently drenched flood plains, over-apply fertilizer and cram more livestock confinements into already overwhelmed watersheds. Climate change, which worsens these issues by spawning heavy rains, flooding and drought, is unaddressed.

Never fear, the Legislature, now with even more Republicans, will return to the Golden Dome of Wisdom in January. But it’s unlikely lawmakers will do much of anything about any of this. I half expect the slight drop in impaired waters to be used as an excuse to stick with the dirty status quo.

We’re making progress. But don’t look too closely.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has suggested she might refloat her plan for using a sales tax increase to fill the Natural resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, replace local mental health funding and cut income taxes again.

A sales tax increase, in this economy? More tax cuts with revenues declining? Not likely.

Besides, her plan for filling the long empty trust fund hands all the water quality dollars to farmers with no standards for measuring if the projects we’re paying for actually clean up water. There are tight limits on recreation spending and much of the “new money” filling the fund simply replaces existing spending.

It’s a complicated plan with something for everyone to dislike. Not exactly the formula for legislative success.

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The state Environmental Protection Commission also remains firmly in the grasp of agricultural interests. Five seats will come up for appointment or reappointment in 2021, and Reynolds could make some diverse selections. Corn, beans, hogs, cattle and meatpacking, perhaps.

OK, maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But I doubt it.

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

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