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.
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.”
IowaWatch’s 2016 investigative work titled, “Crisis In Our Wells” is a multiple-part special report which explores Iowa’s rural well water contamination problem.
According to the report, an estimated 288,000 people rely on private wells for their water supplies. However, rural well water quality is not regulated, so many well owners may not know what is in the water they’re drinking. IowaWatch spent much of 2016 testing for nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead in southwest Iowa private wells, and found that a large number had high nitrate and bacteria levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard for nitrate contamination is 45 milligrams per liter. IowaWatch, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested 28 wells in May and June. Eleven of the tested wells had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter, with one rural home’s water coming in at 168 milligrams per liter. Some wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead, while fifteen wells had unsafe bacteria levels.
County sanitarians that perform tests for these contaminants told IowaWatch that they often have trouble convincing homeowners that testing well water is important. Sherry Storjohann is an environmental health specialist that has been testing wells in Crawford and Carroll counties for a quarter century.
Storjohann said, “What’s out of sight is out of mind.” She explained, “I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water. Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”
Recent research from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination found that nitrates in drinking water can lead to birth defects among pregnant women, certain types of cancer and thyroid problems. Bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful to residents but can be a sign that the well is open to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff, vermin or septic system leaks. The health risks associated with low levels of lead and arsenic are unknown, but the EPA sets those contamination limits at zero.
In 1987, Iowa legislature established the Grants to Counties Program as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The program provides funds to county health departments to provide well-related services to residents. All of Iowa’s counties, except for Marshall county, participate in the program. Funds for the program are generated by fertilizer and pesticides taxes and are split equally among counties each year. The money can be used for total nitrate, coliform bacteria as well as arsenic testing in private wells.
Carmily Stone is bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said, “Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly.”
Spending can vary for several reasons. Some counties have more rural water unities while others have more private wells, other counties simply do not have enough public health employees to provide services to everyone. Beginning in 2016, Iowa legislature added a mid-year funding reallocation for those counties that do not spend all of the Grants to Counties money.
Stone said, “We will look at the spending patterns of the counties. If there are counties that have already spent their money, that’s awesome. We want them to spend it all. But if there are counties that still have money left, then we will look at that and say, ‘Okay, how much money is still here?’ If there is quite a bit of money still sitting there, then we will consider a reallocation plan.”
Stone said that those funds leftover are given to counties that have spent all of their money for the year.
Despite the availability of free testing services and health risks associated with contaminated water, environmental health specialist Storjohann said that some people do not consider the issue a priority. Storjohann said that her parents and grandparents never tested their private wells. She said, “They were of the adage: ‘We’ve been drinking it this long, you know. It’s never harmed us.”
Storjohann continued, “I’ve gotten to the point now in the last number of years where I actually send out a personal letter to homeowners trying to explain our services, hoping to generate that interest and make them understand the good service this is and what we can provide and that this is all for their benefit.”
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.”
A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.
Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.
Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.
A recently launched nonprofit organization backed by three of Iowa’s largest agricultural groups hopes it can help Iowa farmers protect water quality.
Funded by the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) was launched in late August to assist Iowa farmers in implementing the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy, developed after a request from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, is an initiative by farmers, scientists and water treatment plants to reduce the amount of nitrate and phosphorus being released into Iowa waterways. Most of these nutrients are released from farms and other agricultural producers, and can cause significant problems for habitats all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The IAWA intends to work with researchers and agriculture stakeholders to increase understanding of nutrient reduction methods. It stresses continued flexibility for farmers, who are encouraged but not mandated to implement the elements of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
A recent report, however, casts doubt on the effectiveness of this voluntary approach for agricultural producers, who contribute the vast majority of phosphorus and nitrate to Iowa waterways. This could be because of a lack of awareness or understanding of the program. Last year, only half of Iowa farmers surveyed who were aware of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy chose to participate, and about a third were unaware of the program altogether.
This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new study which highlights the risks facing Iowa’s corn crops caused by changing environmental conditions. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.
Transcript: Corn risk
The effects of climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices on corn production spell disaster for more than just farmers.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
Corn is the United States’ biggest cash crop, essential to products including meat, cereal, soda and ethanol.
This is why sustainable business consortium Ceres suggests that corn’s entire supply chain should be taking action to address changing environmental conditions.
Ceres recently released a report that provides guidelines for farmers, companies and investors seeking to preserve resources and increase long-term yields.
The study cites pollution from agricultural runoff, along with recent droughts and water shortages across the country that are predicted to increase. Ceres contends that these factors are combining to form a sizeable threat to the corn industry.
For more information about the Ceres study, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.
From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.