Nick Fetty | March 16, 2016
Water quality researchers across the state say that it will take decades to reduce nutrient concentration in Iowa waterways and that much of the problem can be attributed to the current voluntary approach to nutrient reduction as well as the unpredictability of the weather.
University of Iowa hydrologist Keith Schilling said he expects the cleanup of Iowa’s waterways to take several years.
“This is a long-term process to measure (nutrient reduction) progress at the large watershed scale. It will take many years, if not decades, to see changes,” Schilling said in an interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
The ability to improve water quality in Iowa is further complicated by two other issues: the voluntary approach of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) and unpredictable weather patterns.
Iowa’s NRS was developed by scientists and researchers at Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2013. The strategy outlines voluntary ways farmers, watershed managers, and other landowners can improve water quality through agricultural practices (buffer strips, cover crops, etc.) and other conservation measures. Critics of the NRS – such as Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe – say that the voluntary approach is ineffective and does little to improve water quality.
Stowe has been behind a lawsuit between Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa counties. The water utility alleges that the counties are not doing enough to reduce nutrient pollution and that the water utility is then burdened with additional treatment processes. A recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed support Des Moines Water Works in the lawsuit.
Unpredictable weather patterns have also contributed to the difficulty of improving Iowa’s water quality. University of Iowa hydrologist Keith Schilling said one example of this is drought experienced in 2012 followed by an unusually wet 2013 which led to an increase in nutrients in Iowa waterways. Shilling said that nutrient loads have seen little change statewide since 1998 but changes were easier to indentify in subwatersheds where conservation measures have been installed.