Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality


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The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which  leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,”  which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.

Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.

 

Soil conservation demonstrations extended after early success


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Water that washes off of farm fields poses major challenges for water quality in Iowa (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 7, 2019

Last week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a three year extension and $2 million of extra state funding for three innovative projects promoting soil conservation and water quality on farms.

These projects  are part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which partially funds 65 water quality projects around the state. This initiative is part of the larger Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, an effort to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farm fields into waterways.

The Taylor County Water Quality Initiative, one of the three extended projects, identifies specific areas on farms that could benefit from alternative practices like land retirement or drainage management. Over 60 farmers have so far used the program to reduce nutrient runoff while maintaining or increasing profitability.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative engages partners like the Iowa Seed Association to encourage cover cropping: growing alternative crops on otherwise bare soil during the off season. Cover crops hold soil in place and can help with weed management and soil compaction issues. Some seed companies say this initiative has increased cover cropping among their clients from less than 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The Central Iowa Watershed Management Authority Project has so far installed five wetlands, five saturated buffers and two bioreactors on farms. Saturated buffers use strips of wetland to filter nutrients from drainage water, and bioreactors use organic carbon sources, like wood chips, for denitrification. Both are expensive and difficult for most farmers to install without assistance.

Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects like these are funded by both state and private money, as well as in-kind donations. Other active projects target entire watersheds and demonstrate methods for improving urban water quality.

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.”

 

Four Iowa water quality improvement projects will soon be scaling up


 

Four projects have received renewed funding to continue expanding their water quality protection efforts, which serve as demonstrations for farmers interested in implementing the practices. (flickr/Victor U)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 28, 2017

Four Iowa projects aimed at preserving water quality will receive renewed funding, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey announced Monday.

The projects, set in Wapello, Plymouth, Henry, and Montgomery counties, began in 2014 and were set to expire this year, but will receive $1.8 million total from the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to increase the scale of their efforts, and improve evaluation techniques.

The projects serve as demonstrations for water quality improvement practices, all in an effort to advance the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy was put forth to achieve a 45-percent reduction of agricultural nutrient runoff draining to the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

The showcased practices include cover crops, installed wetlands, terraced slopes, land retirement, and other techniques.

“These projects are hitting their stride in terms of engaging farmers, getting practices on the ground and coordinating with partners and stakeholders,” Northey said in a press release. “We have always understood that it would take a long-term commitment to improvement in these watersheds and I’m excited to continue to learn from these projects as we work to scale-up and expand water quality efforts across the state.”

 

On The Radio: Iowa farmers implementing nutrient reduction strategies for the first time


Farmland in Story County, Iowa. (Karl Wycoff/Flickr)
Farmland in Story County, Iowa. (Karl Wycoff/Flickr)
September 28, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at new nutrient reduction strategies that some Iowa farmers are implementing for the first time with the help of newly available funding. 

Transcript: Farmers implementing nutrient reduction strategies for the first time

More Iowa farmers are ready to apply nutrient reduction practices for the first time this year.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Agriculture received 1,800 applications from farmers seeking to participate in a cost sharing program to help them implement nutrient reduction strategies. Over half of those farmers will be using a practice – like cover crops and no-till – for the first time.

The $3.5 million in funds will be applied to farmers in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Farmers new to cover crops will receive a $25-per-acre cost share and a $10-per-acre cost share for no-till or strip till.

Cover crops provide a range of benefits by reducing soil erosion and increasing nutrient recycling on farmland.

For more information about nutrient reduction strategies, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

http://globegazette.com/mcpress/news/local/over-million-obligated-for-nutrient-reduction-practices/article_de106bfe-db9e-5cc8-95a9-0759ff207daf.html