New report reveals prevalence of well contamination in Iowa


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Click here to explore new findings on well contamination from the Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council. 

Julia Poska| April 25, 2019

If you own a private well in Iowa, it’s likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria, nitrates or both, according to a new report from the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group.

“Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them,” the report’s primary author, economic analyst Anne Schechinger said in a press release.

The report was released yesterday as an interactive map, using dots in three colors to indicate the relative levels of contamination between counties based on state testing from 2002 to 2017. Because the EPA does not require testing for private wells, the vast majority of Iowa’s private wells are never tested. Only 55,000 of Iowa’s estimated 290,000 wells were tested during the study period.

Over 40 percent of those wells contained fecal coliform bacteria, considered unsafe in any amount. Twelve percent had nitrate levels above the EPA’s 10 parts per million safety standard. Twenty-two percent had nitrate levels above 5 ppm, which recent studies have linked to increased risk of numerous health problems, according to the report. The average nitrate level rose to 5.7 ppm over the years of study.

Over that entire period, eight counties tested fewer than 10 wells, meaning this report tells an incomplete story. Findings indicate that those counties, which appear the cleanest on the map, may actually be among the most at risk.  Only one-third of wells were tested more than once. Those that were tested repeatedly often showed continued contamination, indicating lack of action.

 

New ‘Environmental Working Group’ database analyzes $30 Billion Spent On U.S. Conservation Programs


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Soil erosion is common in Iowa following heavy rains along steep slopes. (Flickr)
Jake Slobe | November 2, 2016

The Enviromental Working Group recently revealed a new database showing the details of  USDA conservation expenditures.

The database allows Americans to see, for the first time, exactly where billions of dollars in conservation funding have gone.

According to the group, even with the $29.8 billion that has been spent on U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation efforts over the past decade, these expenditures are not leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.

Iowa is the leading recipient of USDA conservation funds with more than $4.36 billion since 1995.  However, the states has seen little change in the level of surface water pollution caused by nitrates, bacteria, algae and sediment.

Most USDA conservation payments go to landowners and farmers who convert cropland to grassland for a specified length of time under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The USDA says CRP has kept pollutants out of the water, reduced soil erosion, and provided valuable wildlife habitat.

The Environmental Working Group stated in its report that landowners between 2007 and 2014 withdrew 15.8 million acres from CRP in response to high crop prices.

The Environmental Working Group database shows that counties in the Raccoon River watershed have a lower participation in CRP and that the majority of CRP payments go to residents within counties that are not mission critical for the state’s highest environmental priority — reducing nutrient pollution in the waters of Iowa and farther downstream.

 

 

 

 

Study: Requiring buffer strips can reduce water pollution in Iowa


This riparian buffer protects Bear Creek in Story County, Iowa. (Merrill College of Journalism/Flickr)
This riparian buffer protects Bear Creek in Story County, Iowa. (Merrill College of Journalism/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 5, 2015

Requiring farmers to utilize buffer strips could help to improve water quality in Iowa at minimal cost to the farmer according to a report released this week by the Environmental Working Group.

The report – entitled “Iowa’s Low Hanging Fruit” – outlines the potential of buffer strips which are “small areas or strips of land in permanent vegetation, designed to intercept pollutants and manage other environmental concerns” often planted between croplands and waterways. Buffer strips have minimal affect on a farmer’s crop acreage and can reduce the amount of phosphorus, nitrates, and other chemicals that run off farmland and pollute waterways.

The report examines five Iowa counties (Allamakee, Hamilton, Linn, Plymouth, and Union) which each represent the state’s major landscape regions and “reflect the wide county-to-county range in how much land is devoted to row crops” according to the report. The researchers examined buffers of three different widths (35-feet, 50-feet, and 75-feet) and concluded that a 50-foot buffer would affect 11 percent of landowners in the selected counties. The report also found that a 50-foot buffer would require only 0.12 percent of cropland to be converted to permanent vegetation to act as the buffer zone. The author’s conclude that if action requiring buffer strips is not taken at the state-level, the counties could take the initiative to each set regulations.

Organizations such as the Iowa Soybean Association have cited practices such as buffer strips as being “a good long-term investment for farmers.”

Environmental Working Group: Wetlands, Fragile Lands Plowed


Photo by born1945; Flickr

In a study released by the Environmental Working Group, an estimated 7.2 million acres of wetlands and fragile lands were converted to cropland in 4 years.

The advocacy group, using mapping and geospatial technologies, found in Iowa, only two counties, Taylor and Adair, saw between 2,500 and 5,000 acres of wetland and wetland buffers converted to cropland.

These findings are linked to Congress’s actions concerning a new farm bill:

“The data strongly suggest that over-subsidized crop insurance policies are greasing the wheels of conversion to row crops,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “The government is picking up too much of the risk of plowing up and planting fragile land, all at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers and untold environmental degradation.”

To learn more about the study and the possible repercussions, follow this link.

Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook discusses ag-issues at UNI


Ken Cook. Photo by USDAgov, Flickr.

On October 9, the University of Northern Iowa hosted an event entitled “Hunger Games: What is it about agriculture that’s eating consumers?”.

The keynote speaker at the event was Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group Ken Cook. He discussed how the farm industry and governmental farm policies have caused environmental and public health issues.

Specifically, Cook feels that the current trends in the farming industry are harming our soil and water, and causing unhealthy eating habits.

Read more about Cook’s speech here.

Taxpayers will pay for drought


Photo by Crane Station, Flickr

The federally subsidized crop insurance program for corn and soybean farmers will pay out billions in taxpayer payments to farmers as a result of 2012 drought that has decimated the country this year.

In some cases farmers will actually make more money from crop insurance payments than they would have received from normal rainfall and normal crop yields.

Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames and the author of a 2011 report for the Environmental Working Group titled “The Revenue Insurance Boondoggle: A taxpayer-paid Windfall for Industry” believes that reforms are needed to this important safety-net program.

Read more from The Gazette, here.

Environmentalists link crop insurance to habitat loss


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region, Flickr.

Environmental groups blame crop insurance for the loss wildlife habitat in Iowa and around the nation.

A report from the Environmental Working Group and Defenders of Wildlife attributes crop insurance to the increase in farming on marginally productive land. This causes the loss of wildlife habitats such as wetlands and grasslands.

A study by one of the authors of the report found that only Texas and South Dakota lost more habitat than Iowa over a three-year period.

Read more from The Gazette here.