Staff Editorial

Gazette investigation underscores need for water quality funding, accountability

A view of the Mississippi River and the the historic Black Hawk Bridge that connects Wisconsin and Iowa from atop Mount Hosmer from Mount Hosmer Park in Lansing, Iowa, on June 22, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A view of the Mississippi River and the the historic Black Hawk Bridge that connects Wisconsin and Iowa from atop Mount Hosmer from Mount Hosmer Park in Lansing, Iowa, on June 22, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Consider the plight of Louisiana shrimp fishers.

Shrimping is sometimes a family trade, passed down from parents to children, but the current generation of shrimpers faces new challenges. Farm-grown shrimp from other countries have crowded the market and dragged prices down, while business expenses continue to rise. And now mounting environmental problems are threatening their livelihoods.

Sound familiar? It should. Just as Iowa families farm the land, Louisiana family shrimpers harvest the bounty of the water. Both must balance a wide range of shifting economic and environmental factors.

Imagine if water pollution from Minnesota or air pollution from Nebraska threatened Iowa businesses.

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The two professions are connected in a very direct way — through the Mississippi River. Growing evidence suggests the shrimpers’ fate is closely tied to farming practices in places like Iowa, more than 1,000 miles upstream.

Scientists and government officials have identified a so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where depleted oxygen levels kill or displace aquatic life. The dead zone is largely blamed on nitrate and phosphorus from farm fertilizer, and a recent Gazette investigation reveals a yearslong, multistate effort to reduce nutrient runoff has yielded little progress.

A federal task force in 2008 set a goal to reduce nitrate and phosphorus pollution by 45 percent by 2015. Now the goal has been pushed back 20 years. The dead zone’s average size over the last five summers is 5,722 square miles, three times larger than the task force’s goal.

The task force’s action plan doesn’t include enforcement mechanisms for the federal government, and the 12 states participating have put forth very different plans to reduce nutrient levels in their water.

The Gazette’s review of water quality policies was led by investigative reporter Erin Jordan as part of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. Jordan and a team of students reviewed more than 1,000 pages of state documents and conducted dozens of interviews in affected states over the past nine months.

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Their research shows the hazardous impacts of fertilizer runoff are not isolated to the Gulf of Mexico. Over-concentrated nutrients also endanger our recreation areas, as with the 1,400 closures or swim warnings issued this summer at public beaches in the 12 states under review. Most troubling of all, those nutrients end up in our drinking water, potentially threatening our health and driving up municipal governments’ water treatment costs, which are covered by our tax dollars.

It is clear that the 2018 water quality law touted by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislators is inadequate, and we urge policymakers to make this part of their legislative agenda once again in 2019 in Des Moines.

This year’s legislation does provide important funding to assist farmers participating in voluntary conservation projects like buffer strips or cover crops — $282 million over 12 years — but it does not require farmers to participate, even if they plant crops and spread fertilizer near waterways. The law doesn’t set any goals to measure our progress, and the list of landowners receiving government assistance is not public. It is difficult or impossible for any independent watchdog to assess the value of the projects.

Only one state in the region, Minnesota, has imposed mandatory conservation practices on farmers, and it’s clear there is no political appetite for mandates here in Iowa. But at the very least, we should all be able to agree on establishing better metrics and bench marks for nutrient runoff. Without that, there is no good way to measure our progress.

One thing there is an appetite for, at least among Iowa voters, is a sales tax hike to fund conservation programs. In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters approved the creation of a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, to be filled with the next sales tax increase of three-eighths-cents. Conservation groups want it funded, as do many business and agriculture stakeholders. This is the best way to provide a steady, reliable and protected revenue source for conservation and outdoor recreation.

Imagine if water pollution from Minnesota or air pollution from Nebraska threatened Iowa businesses. There’s no doubt our citizens and politicians would demand recourse. Why, then, do Iowans stand by as our actions threaten the livelihoods of those downstream from here?

The formula for clean water calls for two key inputs — more funding and greater accountability. Meaningful progress is possible, but it will take a few gallons of political courage.

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

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