Water pollution Iowa’s top science policy issue


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Streams carry farm pollution into the Missippi River, which leads to the Gulf of Mexico (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 2, 2018

In light of upcoming midterm elections, Popular Science wants voters to be informed about science policy,  even if campaigners are not. The national magazine recently released a list of each U.S. state’s most pressing science policy issue.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s biggest challenge is to reduce pollution from farms. Because intensive agriculture takes place on over two-thirds of Iowa’s land, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous leak from the state’s ubiquitous farm fields into waterways at alarming rates.

The list cites a University of Iowa study from earlier this year, which found that Iowa’s nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River rose 47 percent over the last five years. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, initiated in 2013, aimed to reduce this rate 45 percent in that same time span.

Nutrient loss degrades soil quality for growers, and has created legal tensions between farmers and local waterworks. The loss creates issues far downstream as well. An overabundance of nutrients  in the Gulf of Mexico has created a “dead zone” where low-oxygen conditions are inhospitable to aquatic life, which threatens the area’s fishing industry.

The Nutrient Reduction strategy pushes conservation practices like planting cover crops on otherwise bare fields, diversifying land use, and creating buffers along waterways out  to farms, but adoption of such practices is still too low.

The next round of political leaders will need continue searching for a solution, something Iowa voters should take into consideration.  As Popular Science wrote, “Even if it never surfaces on the campaign trail, science is always on the ballot.”

 

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


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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.

Climate change likely to cause surge in nutrient runoff


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A small portion of a hypoxic dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
Jenna Ladd| August 4, 2017

A recent study found that increased precipitation due to climate change will lead to markedly increased nutrient runoff.

Nitrogen rich fertilizers are widely used by U.S. farmers. Many times, more fertilizer than crops can use are applied to the land and the excess runs off into local waterways, eventually draining into the ocean. Excessive nutrient enrichment, also known as eutrophication, decreases available oxygen in the water and kills off aquatic species, resulting in “dead zones.”

Warmer temperatures associated with climate change are expected to continue producing heavier rainfall, thereby increasing nutrient runoff by up to twenty percent by 2100. Anna Michalak, a professor of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford and one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times, “When we think about climate change, we are used to thinking about water quantity — drought, flooding, extreme rainfall and things along those lines. Climate change is just as tightly linked to issues related to water quality, and it’s not enough for the water to just be there, it has to be sustainable.”

Researchers concluded that the Upper Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin, the Northeast and the Great Lakes basin are likely to see the largest increases in nutrient runoff because these areas of the country are already creating hypoxic dead zones. Climate change will likely compound these effects.

While the study focused on the continental U.S., the researchers did apply their model to parts of the world most similar to it. They found that large areas of East, South and Southeast Asia will likely see nutrient runoff surges similar to those in the U.S. Given that some people in these regions depend on surface water to survive, the impacts of nutrient pollution there may be especially lethal.

Iowa Department of Agriculture provides funding for urban water quality projects


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Clive, Iowa is one of the cities that has received funding from the state to implement a water quality improvement demonstration project. (Kim/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 14, 2017

The Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Iowa Water Quality Initiative awarded grants for 12 new urban water quality demonstration projects.

The funds, totaling $820,840, will be met with $1.18 million dollars in matching funds and other in-kind donations. Gov. Terry Brandstand founded the Iowa Water Quality Initiative in 2013. Since then, 45 water quality demonstration sites have been established in addition to this year’s twelve new urban sites.

Gov. Brandstand said, “We know this is a long-term problem that we need to address, and by having a growing source of funding, we think we can speed up the progress that’s being made.”

The water quality demonstration projects will include improved stormwater management, permeable pavement systems, native seeding, lake restoration, and the installation of bioretention cells, among other measures. The cities selected include: Slater, Windsor Heights, Readlyn, Urbandale, Clive, Des Moines, Emmetsburg, Denison, Spencer, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, Waterloo and Ankeny. Upwards of 150 organizations from participating cities have also contributed funds to support the projects. In the last year, $340 million dollars have been spent to improve water quality in Iowa, including both state and federal money.

Meanwhile, a bi-partisan water quality improvement bill is making its way through the Iowa legislature. The plan, called “Water, Infrastructure, Soil for our Economy,” proposes a sales tax increase of three-eighths of a percent over the next three years while also “zeroing out the lowest [income] tax bracket” to offset the sales tax increase. The bill would finally provide funding for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Fund, which was supported overwhelmingly by Iowa voters in 2010.

Representative Bobby Kaufmann is a Republican supporter of the bill. Kaufman said, “This is a sensible, balanced approach to finally combat Iowa’s pervasive water quality issues while not raising the overall tax pie for Iowans.” A minimum of 60 percent of the trust fund dollars would support proven water quality measures as provided by Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Kaufmann said, “The need is there. The desire to fix water quality exists. This provides the funding to get the job done.”

 

Report provides inventory of water monitoring efforts in Iowa


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Constructing wetlands is a proven practice that helps to reduce nutrient runoff from agricultural land. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 23, 2016

A 2016 report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship summarizes Iowa’s water quality monitoring efforts.

The report, which was also supported by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering Center, provides a complete list of all nutrient-specific water monitoring sites in the state. The first of its kind, it was developed to inform the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aims to monitor and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and subsequently to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said,

“Iowa has a comprehensive water quality monitoring effort in place that is supported by a variety of partners. Monitoring results were central to identifying the practices highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and have provided valuable information as we have established priority watersheds. It continues to be an important part of our efforts as we work to increase the pace and scale of practice adoption needed to improve water quality.”

The report outlined all water monitoring efforts according their type and scale:

  • Edge-of-field monitoring
    • Researchers partner with farmers to monitor water quality on the edge of farm fields in order to accurately prioritize nutrient reduction practices.
  • Paired watershed monitoring
    • These are sites wherein the effectiveness of conservation practices are tested on two similar watersheds, one watershed receives intentional conservation measures and the other does not.
  • Large watershed monitoring (950,000 total acres)
    • These sites are either part of University of Iowa’s IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering management of 45 real-time management stations or Iowa DNR’s 60 statewide sites.
  • Small watershed monitoring (22,500 total acres)
    • Several small watershed monitoring projects are ongoing including 18 established by the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Many of these projects measure the effectiveness of conservation practices implemented by farmers.

The report also detailed the many challenges associated with nutrient-specific water quality monitoring. Complicating factors can include frequently changing land-use, varying streamflow and precipitation, and a lack of long-term monitoring records.

Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp said, “While challenges exist, we believe continued nutrient monitoring is critical to understanding what Iowa can do to be successful.” He added, “All partners involved in developing this report know the value of long-term evaluation and are committed to continuing with a science-based approach to nutrient reduction in Iowa waters.”

Researchers call for EPA enforcement of nutrient-reduction plans


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The hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has not decreased in size since Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Plan was established in 2013. (NOAA)
Jenna Ladd | November 18, 2016

A November report by the Iowa Policy Project evaluates the state’s nutrient reduction progress since its Nutrient Reduction Plan (NRS) was released in 2013.

The report states that despite Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction plan, recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that the size of the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has shown no improvement. Iowa Policy Project, an Iowa City-based research group, also posits that the latest annual report from NRS overstates progress that has been made in the state. The NRS report notes that some producers have implemented conservation land-use practices such as cover crops and buffer zones, but doesn’t emphasize that others have failed to maintain or eliminated conservation areas. Among other criticisms, IPP points out that while the Iowa acres in cover crop did increase by 125,000 acres from 2014 to 2015, these improvements must be considered in context. There are a total of 400,000 acres currently in cover crop, but this only represents less than 2 percent of Iowa’s 24 million acres of row crop land.

Many of the conservation efforts are voluntary for farmers in Iowa. IPP reports that more than 40 percent of farmers spent less than $500 a year in conservation practices in the ten year period prior to a 2014 Farm and Rural Life Poll by Iowa State University. Another report released by the Mississippi River Collaborative in November said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to establish “enforceable regulations, specific deadlines or funding” to help Iowa and other agricultural states mitigate their nutrient pollution. Kris Sigford, water quality director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and member of the Mississippi River Collaborative said, “The results of the EPA’s hands-off approach with the Mississippi River basin states are massive algae blooms and nitrate contamination that make our drinking water unsafe and render lakes and rivers unfit for recreation.” EPA responded with a statement on Thursday  stating that the agency has “called upon states and stakeholders to intensify their efforts” to address the issue, one of America’s “most widespread and costly environmental and public health challenges.” They added, however, that they “cannot solve nutrient pollution by top-down federal action.”

EPA’s comments follow a record-breaking summer of Iowa beach closures due to toxic algae blooms. The Mississippi River Collaborative, which has sued EPA for its lack of enforcement, and other environmental groups call the federal agency to set limits on nutrient pollution for states, improve nutrient assessment and water-quality monitoring for Iowa’s waterways and to clearly establish goals and funding for nutrient-reduction initiatives. The collaborative also supports a sales tax increase of three-eighths of one cent to fund water quality projects through the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Susan Heathcote, the Iowa Environmental Council’s water program director, points out that if the sales tax revenue is established, “we need to pair that with good accountability measures so we can tell the taxpayers that these dollars are being invested wisely — that we have a plan.”

EnvIowa Podcast: Soybean crops found to contribute to nitrate levels in Iowa’s waterways


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Jenna Ladd | November 4, 2016

On episode three of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer, to discuss his recent research, which looks at the effects of soybean crops on water quality in Iowa. Much of the research over the last 40 years has been focused on corn, given that corn plants require more fertilizer than soybean plants. However, studies in 2009 and 2016, both of which Dr. Jones co-authored, suggest that soybeans play a larger role than previously understood.

Dr. Jones helps us understand why nutrient pollution has increased steadily as more and more farmers have integrated soybeans into crop rotation, replacing smaller grains and cover-crops, and what it will take to turn this science into water quality policies that benefit Iowans.

The EnvIowa podcast can also be found on iTunes and soundclound. For a complete archive of past episodes, click on the EnvIowa Podcast tab at the top of this page.