Mississippi River Gets a D in Water Quality Thanks to Agricultural Runoff


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | December 24, 2020

A new report from America’s Watershed Initiative revealed a concerning decline in Mississippi River water quality over the last five years by giving its water quality a D, and it placed the blame on uncontrolled agricultural runoff from Iowa and other Midwest states.

Iowa has been one of the Mississippi River’s biggest polluters for years. The Iowa DNR’s ambient stream monitoring showed that the amount of nitrogen polluting the river has doubled over the last 20 years, and the annual load surpassed 1 billion pounds twice in the last four years. This has been disastrous for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico as the dead zone, an area of water no longer capable of supporting marine life due to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, continues to average at 5,408 square miles, according to an article in the Gazette.

Iowa’s current Nutrient Reduction Strategy is meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff entering the dead zone through the Mississippi River, and the state has made progress in some conservation efforts like promoting cover crops, restoring wetlands and installing bioreactors. However, these practices alone have not been enough to make up for the rapid intensification of agriculture in the state. Agricultural runoff continues to increase as farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer over the recommended rate and choose to opt out of voluntary conservation practices without penalty.

Many Iowa environmentalists have called for state government-imposed mandatory regulations to ensure that farmers adopt conservation practices and reduce harmful agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River and other waterways. This would include putting a limit on the amount of manure and commercial fertilizer farmers can apply to their fields and ensuring that water quality standards are met.

Action on a federal level could also improve water quality in the Mississippi River. President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will increase federal spending on incentives for farmers who plant cover crops and reserve their land for conservation, a plan that would improve water quality and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Biden also nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he is likely to work on improving the nation’s water resources like the Mississippi River and establish a line of federal funding for conservation efforts.

Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Farm Pollution Case This Week


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | December 17, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit filed against the state of Iowa for allegedly allowing factory farms to pollute the Raccoon River should go to trial.

Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community improvement filed the case back in 2019. The lawsuit claims that state officials and lawmakers are denying citizens’ rights to clean water for drinking and recreation under the Public Trust Doctrine by allowing crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River watershed, according to an Iowa Now article.

The Raccoon River is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans, and Des Moines water works is currently forced to run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable nitrate and other pollution levels. The river has exceeded federal nitrate limits for safe drinking water on multiple occasions over the past ten years and poses a health risk for for people and wildlife that rely on it as a safe water source. If the case goes to trial, it will urge the court to replace the state’s current policy allowing farmers to implement environmental practices voluntarily with mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. It would also ask for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinements to help limit manure runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

The state argued for the dismissal of the case on the grounds that, because the Iowa Constitution places responsibility of farmers’ interests and water quality on the legislature and executives, the court should not intervene in policy considerations on the matter. A judge denied the state’s motion to have the case thrown out back in September of 2019, and the court will likely make a decision on wether it will allow the case to go to trial in the next few months.

Any attempts to regulate agriculture in Iowa have been historically met with heavy opposition. Iowa leads the nation in corn and pork production, but a system that has such devastating effects on the environment and jeopardizes Iowans’ health and safety cannot continue without substantial reform. Environmental groups in Iowa have long called for policy changes that put mandatory limits on agricultural pollution. If this case is allowed to move forward and succeeds at trial, those changes could finally become a reality and move the state closer to to solving its contaminated water problem.

Algae risk increased by wet spring


Record levels of rain this spring and the resulting agricultural runoff are causing researchers to predict high levels of algae during the summer months that would put recreational water users at risk. Continue reading

Benefits of the drought in Iowa


Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr.
Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr.

While the drought had many negative consequences, there were also a few benefits.

Iowa Public Radio highlighted some of these benefits in a story last week.

The drought provided near ideal conditions for Iowa’s wineries, since grapes grow better in drier conditions. It also helped Iowa’s pheasant population. Pheasants struggle to survive in cold and wet temperatures after hatching. Finally, the drought meant that there was less agricultural runoff.

Read and listen to the full story here.

Dry fall means increased risk of runoff damage


Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr

Iowa’s unusually dry fall could lead to an increase in agricultural runoff. Because of the low stream flows across the state, any spill has increased effects – including a greater chance of fish kills and water quality issues.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources offers tips to reduce the risk of spills:

  • Watch pumps and hoses, monitoring closely for leaks and pressure losses.
  • Keep a spill kit handy with emergency equipment, phone numbers and tools.
  •  Think about how to move dirt quickly in case you need to create a small dam.
  • Make sure all manure is injected or incorporated into the field, or follow required separation distances from vulnerable areas like streams, wells and lakes.

Open feedlots are the most likely to have problems with runoff. Make sure lots are scraped and cleaned. It’s a good time for stockpiles to be land applied too.