Staff Editorial

Iowa needs leadership to restore water quality

A creek runs through fields at Lanehaven Farm in rural Black Hawk County on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/T
A creek runs through fields at Lanehaven Farm in rural Black Hawk County on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa’s list of waterways impaired by bacteria and other contaminants grew in 2018, according to a state report released this month. Among the sources of pollution impairing our waters are animal waste, fertilizer spills, pesticides and algae growth, mainly fed by fertilizer


The increase in 2018 was 2 percent, with 1,110 impairments found on 767 segments of lakes, rivers and streams, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In 2016, there were 1,096 impairments on 750 segments. If pollutants are found at levels beyond water quality standards for outdoor recreation, drinking water or other intended uses, a waterway is considered impaired.The DNR is quick to mention they don’t measure the magnitude of those impairments.

The DNR also cautions us to avoid using these numbers to find long-term water quality trends. There might be, after all, changes in water monitoring. But when charting these two-year reports, the trend line is unmistakable. The number of impaired waterways is growing, and has been since the 1990s.

In 2008, the DNR told Iowans expanded water quality monitoring efforts likely accounted for growth in the number of impairments. That‘s roughly the same public line the agency used in 2014.

“In general, when the amount of monitoring data increases, the number of waters on the Impaired Waters list also increases,” the DNR said in an online summary of its 2016 impairment list.

So we’ve heard, repeatedly, that the list is growing because monitoring is expanding, although the DNR also says it can’t monitor all waterways because it lacks resources. And just because the list lengthens nearly every two years, it’s not a trend.

In other words, we’ve heard excuses. What we haven’t heard is a comprehensive plan for cleaning up the state’s dismal water quality mess. And our impaired waters list doesn’t even account for nitrate and phosphorus runoff fouling waterways, because Iowa has no water quality standards for those pollutants.


We do have a plan for reducing fertilizer runoff, but it’s voluntary and woefully underfunded. We do have

a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters that could fund expanded water quality efforts, but it sits empty. Scientists called on the DNR to enact new water quality standards for recreational lakes, but the Environmental Protection Commission decided that knowing the true magnitude of lake pollution would be too expensive.

The Iowa Public Health Board has passed a resolution calling for a sales tax increase to fill the trust fund. The Environmental Protection Commission, which charts DNR environmental policy, has approved no such resolution.

What’s wrong with this picture in Iowa?

Instead of making excuses for Iowa’s dirty water, and doing the bidding of large agricultural interests profiting from the stubborn status quo, the DNR should actually work to protect the state’s natural resources. It should be gathering Iowans from all sides of the water quality debate and come up with a path forward as a new legislative session approaches.

Iowa’s water crisis demands strong leadership. Who knows, it could become a trend.

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