Staff Columnist

Incentives alone won't clean Iowa's dirty water

DNR water quality technician Elizabeth Heckman gathers a water sample at Lake Macbride Beach in Solon on Tuesday, June 2
DNR water quality technician Elizabeth Heckman gathers a water sample at Lake Macbride Beach in Solon on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. In addition to gathering water samples, Heckman also noted the number of people on the beach and in the water, the water turbidity, dissolved oxygen, water temperature and pH level. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds might revive her “Invest in Iowa” plan next year, economy and election willing, with hopes of turning some coastal heads toward our flyover state.

You might recall Reynolds’ plan, which would raise the state sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, provide mental health funding and cut income taxes, again.

Reynolds insists it could send a message to outsiders Iowa is set up for success.

“Hey, things are going well here, there’s a lot of opportunity, we have a great quality of life and all components of that really helped to build that out,” Reynolds said of her plan during an interview with Gazette editor Zack Kucharski for the Iowa Ideas Conference.

We are indeed a hot spot. OK, for COVID-19 infections. Forget affordable housing. Good hospital beds are available. But you’d better hurry.

Also, we have dirty water. And all of the water quality bucks in Reynolds’ plan would go to voluntary farm-based projects aimed at reducing fertilizer runoff fouling waterways. But there are no real accountability measures for checking to see if funded projects are actually cleaning water. That’s the Iowa way. We’re spending money, so we must be making progress.

Elsewhere at the Iowa Ideas conference, there were serious doubts that more incentives for farmer volunteers will move us toward clean water goals. Sorry, gulf dead-zone shrimpers.

“We will not incentivize our way out of this flood and water quality problem in Iowa without some restrictions,” said Larry Weber, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering, former director of the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Institute and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center. He appeared at a panel I moderated on “Flood Plain Agriculture.”

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He said, even after paying $600 million in state cost-share dollars over the past 20 years to farmers for conservation projects, the nitrate load leaving Iowa has doubled.

“You cannot expect the taxpayer to continue to fund practices on these farms and give farmers a license to do whatever they want with their inputs. That is not a sustainable policy,” said another UI water quality expert, research engineer Chris Jones, who appeared on the “Water Quality” panel I also moderated. “Eventually the taxpayer is going to wake up that he’s subsidizing pollution.”

Weber said 276,000 acres of Iowa cropland is within the frequently saturated two-year flood plain. These lands have a particularly harmful effect on water quality because, when flooded, fertilizer, herbicides and other inputs are lost into waterways.

Weber has been deeply involved with the flood center’s Iowa Watershed Approach, which has plowed $40 million in federal funding into 1,000 water quality improvement projects in eight watersheds across Iowa. But even with those dollars, progress is difficult.

“What we’re learning is that although this is a fantastic success, we’re challenged by the pace of agriculture and the pace of intensification of agriculture. In the middle Cedar watershed, as an example, we’re going to build $8.5 million in wetlands in a few sub-watersheds. In that same area over a seven-year period, they’ve installed 8,400 miles of agricultural drainage,” Weber said.

“As we’re trying to offset the impact of agriculture, the intensification of agriculture is happening at a faster rate,” Weber said.

Weber said a federal response is crucial to a problem of this scope.

But on the same panel, Sindra Jensen of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, said after 2019’s Missouri River floods, her office received $286 million in applications for flood plain easements that would move farming out of harm’s way. But only $36 million was available.

Jones, who coordinates water quality sensors, studies nutrient transport and also works with the flood center, pointed to the Bloody Run Creek watershed in Clayton County for an example of what’s wrong with state environmental policy.

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Bloody Run Creek is a trout stream designated as one of Iowa’s 34 outstanding waterways due to its good water quality. But an 11,600 head cattle operation is now planned for the watershed, which is smaller in size than the city of Des Moines.

“Why do we let this sort of thing happen in Iowa when we have so few waters that are in a good condition? This is something we really can’t get our head around,” Jones said during the “Water Quality” panel I moderated.

“Until we come to grips with that we’ll be sitting here like we are today trying to dredge up some good news stories,” Jones said.

On the same panel, Scott Nelson, director of agronomy for the Iowa Soybean Association Research Center for Farming Innovation, said educating farmers is the key to making progress. He provides technical help to farmers putting in conservation measures.

“It’s easy for us who live water quality every day to assume everybody understands the issues and all that. But I talk to farmers and they don’t understand it,” Nelson said. “So it’s hard to ask them to be volunteers when they don’t understand there’s a problem.”

“How long are we supposed to wait?” Jones said.

Jones said solutions are right in front of us. Farmers shouldn’t grow crops in the two-year flood plain and fall tillage, a non-beneficial practice which contributes to nutrient loss, should be banned.

The state’s system for siting livestock confinement operations must be totally revamped, with the goal of better managing nutrients on a watershed scale.

“It’s illogical to think we can continue to cram livestock into some of these watersheds and expect good water quality. It’s counter intuitive,” Jones said.

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Weber agrees that “pumping the brakes” on livestock confinements is needed, as well as looking at current rules that encourage the over-application of manure and commercial fertilizer.

They also agree any moves to limit livestock production or take cropland out of production will be met with strong opposition from powerful ag interests, especially the ones that sell seed, feed, fertilizer and other inputs.

“All of that takes political will. It takes laws. And we have no courage to do any of that stuff. Let’s face it, the industry wants license to do what it wants to do. They’ve basically gotten it,” Jones said.

Maybe our governor could choose sound science over dubious politics that benefit her allies and donors. Which brings us back to Iowa’s uncontrolled pandemic.

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

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