Despite criticism, water quality bill heads to Governor’s desk

Iowa is a main contributor to nutrient pollution that renders enormous parts of the Gulf of Mexico completely lifeless. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 25, 2018

A long-awaited bill to improve water quality in Iowa is set to be approved by Gov. Reynolds soon, but critics say it does not go far enough.

Scientists who have been working to curb nutrient runoff in Iowa’s waterways since 2010 through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have publicly estimated that it would cost billions of dollars to adequately address Iowa’s water quality problem. Senate File 512 falls short, allocating $282 million to water quality improvement over the next twelve years. The plan draws money from an existing tax on tap water that used to go into the state’s general fund and gambling revenue that was once used for infrastructure projects.

Republican John Wills of Spirit Lake spearheaded the bill’s passing. According to the Register, he said, “The bill builds upon the successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy and provides for long-term and sustainable funding. This is just the beginning, not the end.”

While the measure passed the House of Representatives 59-41, both Republicans and Democrats criticize the bill for not going far enough to clean up Iowa’s nearly 700 impaired waterways. Republican representative Chip Baltimore of Boone, Iowa said “I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box. Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”

Iowa’s largest environmental coalition, the Iowa Environmental Council, released a statement criticizing the bill. In the statement, the organization’s Executive Director Jennifer Terry, said, “Our legislature today chose a failed business-as-usual approach to cleaning up our polluted lakes and rivers.” She continued, “The legislation passed today lacks a scientifically-proven watershed approach, lacks funding for adequate financial and human capital, lacks required water quality monitoring or assurance of public access to data about Iowa’s water quality.”

The coalition calls on Republican Gov. Reynolds to veto the bill.

Cover crop planting on the rise, but still used by just a small fraction of Iowa farmers

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last year. (flickr/CAFNR)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 14, 2017

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last fall. This is an increase of over 60,000 acres, but covers just 2.6 percent of the 23.4 million acres of corn and soybean crops in the state.

Various state and federal conservation programs provided funding for 353,000 of these acres, including a cost-share program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to meet the needs of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover crops provide land with a vegetative cover during the months that crops are not actively growing, between the harvest and replanting. This helps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are washed into Iowa’s water bodies from agricultural lands, ultimately protecting the water quality. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrates leaching from the soil by 35 percent, and they are the the most effective practice for retaining nitrogen in the soil.

Washington County leads the state with the most acres of cover crops planted, followed by Cedar and Iowa counties, Wallaces Farmer reports.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Wallaces Farmer that he is encouraged by the increase in the practice.

“It’s obvious with the interest we’ve seen over the past few years that farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide,” Northey said to Wallaces Farmer. “Cover crops are an important tool to help improve water quality and soil health in Iowa, and it is great to see an increasing number of farmers use this practice.”

On The Radio – How should Iowa measure its water quality?

Data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System showing nitrate levels in Iowa.
Jake Slobe | November 28, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses an emerging debate about the best way to measure water quality in Iowa.

Transcript: A debate has emerged over the best way to measure the success of water improvements in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A big part of Iowa’s efforts to improve its rivers, streams and lakes centers on farmers adopting conservation practices spelled out in the state’s ambitious Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state’s waterways by 45 percent.

However, an emerging and controversial debate is occurring about how the state should measure whether spending on water improvement is working.

Environmentalists, water advocates and scientists want Iowa to rely on real-time water-quality monitoring, building on the state’s existing work to measure how well the state’s conservation efforts are working.

In general, farm groups would rather the improvements be measured by counting how many acres of cover crops, grassed waterways and other conservation practices have been put in place, presuming that the more Iowa has, the better its water quality will be. They are working with Iowa State University scientists on a plan to precisely track conservation gains.

The problem is that neither of these methods guarantee Iowa will be able to quickly measure whether water quality is actually improving. This is because farm practices that cut nitrate and phosphorus levels will likely take more than a decade to produce results in major Iowa rivers and lakes.

For more information about Iowa water quality improvements, visit

From the UI Center for Regional and Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.

Experts say improving Iowa’s water quality could take decades

A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
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.

On The Radio – New online tool provides users with data for Iowa’s streams and rivers

An icy section of the Raccoon River near Columbus Park in Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
An icy section of the Raccoon River near Columbus Park in Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | February 15, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a new interactive tool created by researchers at the University of Iowa that allows users to access data about Iowa’s streams and rivers.

Transcript: New online tool provides users with data for Iowa’s streams and rivers

An innovative tool developed by scientists at the University of Iowa will give Iowans a wealth of easily accessible water quality information.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Iowa Water Quality Information System, or IWQIS (“eye-kwis”), is a web-based tool that offers access to real time water quality information including nutrient data, flow rates, and water temperatures for Iowa’s streams and rivers. IWQIS uses data from sensors deployed by IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa and the United States Geological Survey along most streams and rivers in the state. This information is available in an interactive map that’s accessible on any web browser.

By helping Iowans understand the transport of nutrients in the state’s waterways, IWQIS is a valuable tool to help policy makers evaluate the success of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Users can easily see the total amount of nutrients being carried along a waterway at a certain time and compare those levels to previous years.

For more information about IWQIS and a tutorial on how to use the site, visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Iowa joins 13 other states challenging EPA water rule

The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods States Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)
The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods State Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 18, 2015

Governor Terry Branstad announced Tuesday that Iowa will join 13 other states in challenging the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

The challenge is part of a current court case in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota Southwestern Division against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. In a press statement, Branstad called the rule “a federal overreach that imposes significant barriers and impairs Iowa’s ability to advance innovative, water quality practices that would actually advance our common goal of water quality.”

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds said the rule is “an overreach by the federal government that hurts Iowa farmers and small businesses” and applauded efforts by Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and other Iowa congressional delegates to combat the rule. She said she hopes the rule is withdrawn so “Iowa can continue to improve water quality through the collaborative and innovate Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said, “The misguided WOTUS rulemaking process has created uncertainty and has threatened to impede our efforts to get conservation and water quality practices on the ground. Joining this lawsuit is the right thing to do and I hope that ultimately the courts will overturn the rule.”

Federal officials say the rule is necessary “to limit pollution in small waterways and wetlands that 117 million Americans depend on for drinking water.”

Other states challenging the rule include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.


On The Radio – Two Iowa cities receive national grants for water quality

Dubuque, Iowa with the Mississippi River in the background. (Wikimedia)
October 26, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at two Iowa cities that recently received national grants to improve water quality. 

Transcript: League of Cities

One Iowa group is receiving a national grant to reduce water pollution.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Iowa League of Cities has been named a 2015 recipient of a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The $700,000 grant will help fund development of a program under Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the Water Quality Offset Program. This program, being implemented in Dubuque and Storm Lake, is designed to reduce nutrient runoff from point sources without increasing costs to ratepayers. These cities have worked with their watershed groups to develop nutrient reduction projects upstream from their communities.

The NRCS grant program looks for innovative conservation practices across the country, specifically programs that demonstrate how conservation practices can lower costs for citizens in the long run. The Water Quality Offset Program allows operators at point sources of nutrient pollution to exchange nutrient reduction at one source to offset the costs of reduction at another source.

For more information about nutrient reduction programs, visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Poll shows majority of Iowa farmers support Nutrient Reduction Strategy

Riparian buffers are one way to protect waterways from agriculture run off such as this one on Bear Creek in Story County, Iowa. (Merrill College of Journalism Press Release/Flickr)
Riparian buffers are one way to protect waterways from agricultural runoff such as this one on Bear Creek in Story County, Iowa. (Merrill College of Journalism Press Release/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | June 12, 2015

A recent poll by researchers at Iowa State University shows that many Iowa farmers are aware of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and support its objectives.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been conducted each year since 1982 and is “the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.” The 2014 edition asked farmers about their awareness and knowledge of the 2013 nutrient reduction strategy, their awareness and concern about nutrient-related water quality issues, attitudes toward the strategy, and perceived barriers to action. Surveys were sent out to 2,218 farmers in February 2014 and 1,128 (51 percent) replied with usable data.

Just over 20 percent of farmers surveyed identified as “not at all knowledgeable” in regard to the nutrient reduction strategy while 21.6 percent identified as “knowledgeable” or “very knowledgeable.” More than 75 percent of farmers either agreed (60.8 percent) or strongly agreed (15.3 percent) that agriculture is impacting Iowa water quality. When asked if they think nutrients from Iowa farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, just over 50 percent said they either agree (40.9 percent) or strongly agree (11.2 percent) while roughly 40 percent said they were uncertain. Nearly 85 percent of respondents said they agree (63.3 percent) or strongly agree (20.3 percent) that “Iowa farmers should do more to reduce nutrient and sediment run-off into waterways.”

“Viewed as a whole, the results of the 2014 Farm Poll indicate that substantial progress has been made in raising farmers’ awareness of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This is a critical step. However, the challenge going forward will be to translate awareness and positive attitudes into much more widespread use of conservation practices and farming systems that lead to sustained progress toward nutrient loss reduction goals,” the poll’s authors concluded.

The poll was collaboration by the ISU Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service.

2015 Cover Crop Conference coming to West Des Monies

This farmer in South Dakota utilizes a cover crop combination of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish, and New York style turnip. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 27, 2015

The 2015 Iowa Cover Crops Conference will be held in West Des Moines on February 17 and 18.

The annual event is hosted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Conservation Districts of Iowa , and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. This year’s event will include a presentation from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey as well as farmers and other agribusiness professionals.

Cover crop usage in Iowa has gained momentum in recent years with just 10,000 acres planted in 2009 and more than 300,000 acres by 2013. Cover crops are one of the techniques outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a way of minimizing fertilizer runoff which pollutes waterways. Approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone came from the Mississippi River.

A report by the international consulting firm Datu Research last year found that 23 percent of Iowa farmers reported utilizing cover crops. The report found that Iowa farmers are also practicing no-till and minimum tillage techniques as well as crop rotation, all of which can reduce runoff and improve soil health.

An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that the use of cover crops does not increase yields but it does “increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon.” However, research by scientists at Purdue University has found that cover crops can improve corn stover yields which can be used as a biofuel.

The cost of next month’s event is $99 for those who register before February 16 and $125 for those who register onsite.

State could face possible lawsuit for water quality issues

Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon Rivers as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
The Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon River as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 6, 2015

The Des Moines Water Works – Iowa’s largest water utility – is considering bringing a lawsuit against the state challenging the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Last month an unusually high surge of nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers forced officials with the Des Moines Water Works to activate its nitrate removal facility which costs roughly $7,000 per day to operate. These costs have been passed on to the Des Moines Water Works’ more than a quarter of a million customers. High nitrate levels that go untreated can lead to multiple health complications such as blue baby syndrome as well as various cancers and miscarriages.

Bill Stowe – CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works – has been critical of state’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy. In an editorial he wrote for the Des Moines Register in October 2014, Stowe stated: “Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy “is voluntary for farmers [and] calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution leaving the state.” Critics of the strategy say that the voluntary approach has been ineffective in improving Iowa’s water quality.

The Des Moines Water Works board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and a decision on whether to bring legal action against the state may be discussed at that meeting.