What’s the big deal about water quality anyway? Part 2: National & Global Implications

There is one thing we’re exceptionally good at here in Iowa: Growing things.

Our 26 million acres of crop land is some of the most productive land on earth. We are the national leader in corn and soybean production. Our harvests provide food, fiber, and fuel all over the world. We should be rightfully proud of that.
But all of that production comes at a cost.

We have the most productive soils in the world because vast prairies spent eons building it. The biomass and organic matter that thousands of years of prairie grasses contributed to our landscape are the reason we have such thick, rich topsoil. But now that we’ve plowed up all but one tenth of one percent of that original prairie, we’re losing that topsoil at unsustainable rates.

That is the cost of being the most productive agricultural state.

So what’s the big deal? Few, if any, of us will be around to see the day when we’ve lost so much topsoil that production suffers (let’s hope anyway). Technology and genetic engineering will probably make it possible to grow corn in clay, or gravel, or bedrock, or whatever is below all this topsoil (again, let's hope).

The issue, at least for the purposes of this post, isn’t so much that we’re going to run out of topsoil. The issue is where that soil goes when it leaves our fields and what it carries with it when it goes there. 

Hence all the recent hubbub about water quality.

We’ve reached a point in our century-and-a-half or so of agriculture that we’re faced with the harsh reality that the way we’ve been doing it isn’t sustainable. Our water quality sucks. Less than half our rivers and lakes meet basic water quality standards. Statewide, we lose an average of more than five tons of topsoil per acre per year. Let’s do some quick math on that statistic alone:

26 million acres of row crops x 5 tons per acre average soil loss per year = 130 million tons of topsoil lost per year.

For perspective, that’s over eight million dump truck loads or more than one million rail cars. How long of a train would that be? It would take three and a half trains stretching from New York to Los Angeles to carry that amount of topsoil. Or to keep it in our own geography, that would be eight and half trains stretching from Minneapolis to New Orleans all carrying the very stuff that took thousands of years to build and which provides the very foundation of our ag economy. 

photo credit: PeterThoeny via photopin (license)

And most of it ends up in some waterway. If it finds its way into a river, it will eventually end up in the Mississippi, which is where Iowa’s water quality becomes a national problem.

Water Quality’s Global Implications: The Gulf Dead Zone

The Mississippi River drains more than 40 percent of the country. So Iowa certainly isn’t alone in contributing runoff to the Gulf, but as the nation's largest producer, we certainly contribute a fair share. On average, the Mississippi River carries 436,000 tons of sediment per day (seriously?!). With that sediment comes a mix of chemicals and nutrients, some of which, at high concentrations, are not exactly good for water quality.

The soils of Iowa and other corn-belt states are so productive because they naturally carry the nutrients plants need to grow. Specifically, nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) are the two main nutrients at issue here. Our soils naturally contain high amounts of those nutrients so even if we never applied an ounce of fertilizer (which contains N and P) to our fields, there would still be pretty high levels of nutrients in our waters. But in our effort to maximize yields to meet the ever-growing demand for food and fuel made from our crops, we do apply fertilizer pretty regularly.

Now it’s worth noting here that the nutrient problem in our waters is not solely because we fertilize to maximize yields. Farmers have a vested interest in not over-applying. I can’t think of anyone that would want to put more expensive product on their fields than what is necessary for the plants to use. There’s no economic sense in applying product that will just run off. So I’m not exactly pointing fingers here.

But the reality is that weather is inherently unpredictable (especially in light of a changing climate) so there’s always the possibility that excess losses will occur. And, like I mentioned earlier, Iowa loses a million rail cars full of nutrient-rich topsoil every year. So it’s not just the fertilizer that we’re applying that’s going down the river. It’s soil and all.

This, to me, is an interesting dichotomy. The very stuff that grows corn so well (soil rich in N & P) is also responsible for a massive environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. How? The nutrients responsible for high corn yields on land are responsible for massive algae blooms when they get into water. All that nutrient-rich water pours into the Gulf and algae eats it up. But that’s not exactly the problem. The problem occurs after the algae dies off. The decomposition process uses oxygen so the massive volume of decomposing algae essentially sucks all the oxygen out of the water causing a “hypoxic zone” where essentially no marine life can survive. 

Graphic source: NOLA.com

This has been happening for quite some time in the Gulf and the size of the hypoxic, or Dead Zone as it’s commonly called, has been steadily increasing due to unrelenting inputs of nutrients from us Midwestern states. For the past five years, the Dead Zone has averaged 5,806 square miles in size. Researchers have been mapping the area since 1985. In 1997, a task force was established to study the causes and effects of eutrophication in the Gulf and to coordinate activities “to reduce the size, severity, and duration; and ameliorate the effects of hypoxia.” In 2001, the task force released its first action plan, then updated it in 2008. The 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan is the one that state and federal agencies are working to implement today.

There are two notable goals I’d like to point out in that 2008 Plan. One is the average size to which it hoped to reduce the Dead Zone – 1,900 square miles by 2015. Second, the Plan called on states to develop their own strategies for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the Gulf by 45 percent, an amount that research suggested could make the size reduction in that first goal possible.

Doing its part, Iowa published a first draft of its Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2012. The document, which has undergone some updates since the first one, outlines a plan for reducing nutrients in Iowa’s waterways and subsequently into the Gulf. Iowa was the second state to complete such a plan. Some key points from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy include:
  • Point sources (such as discharge pipes from factories and wastewater facilities) contribute 7 percent of the nitrogen and 21 percent of the phosphorus found in the state’s waterways.
  • The remainder (93 percent of N, 79 percent of P) come from nonpoint sources (such as the stuff that runs off of our fields, pastures, confinements, and lawns, and out of our drainage tiles). 
  • The estimated cost to implement the strategy sufficiently enough to reach the target goal of 45 percent nutrient reduction ranges from $77 million to $1.2 billion per year. 
  • The primary strategies for reducing nonpoint source runoff include already-proven conservation practices such as buffer strips, cover crops, bioreactors, wetlands, and sediment retention basis, among others. 

Nutrient Reduction Progress

So now that the plan has been around for a number of years, how have we done? In short, not well. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, more than half of our waters fail basic water quality standards. And it seems that our water quality has not significantly improved since 1999

The Gulf hasn’t fared much better. In 2017, the Dead Zone set a new size record at 8,776 square miles. That’s roughly the size of New Jersey. Or for an Iowan perspective, that’s equivalent to an area from Des Moines to Ames in width that stretches from the Mississippi to the Missouri River. 

Gulf of Mexico dead zone in July 2017
At 8,776 square miles, this year's dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest ever measured. (Courtesy of N. Rabalais, LSU/LUMCON) (Image source)

So much for a 45 percent reduction by 2015.

That’s not to say we haven’t made some progress. Every day we’re learning more about how best to balance conservation with production. There is more demand for conservation programs than there is funding for them. Just last year alone (2017), more than $15 million worth of erosion control practice requests went unfunded. It is estimated there are $492.8 million worth of water quality and soil conservation projects ready to be implemented as soon as the funding is available. Sure, it’s a far cry from the billions it’ll cost to fully implement the NRS, but it’d be a great start.

Two Choices: Lead or Be Led

Ever heard the phrase, “It takes money to make money?” That concept applies here. If Iowa were to step up as the leader in reducing nutrients in its waters and in the Gulf, there’s real potential that we could leverage federal dollars. The EPA has been very clear that it’d rather invest in states that make progress toward their NRS goals rather than force them to through regulation. So that’s really the gist of all this: We can lead, and invest our own dollars to start making significant progress and probably leverage outside funding in the process. Or we can wait for this environmental mess to finally get bad enough that federal agencies end up regulating what we do on our land. And it’s not an “if” question. If the trend in the Gulf continues, there will be regulation. If we can’t clean our waters, there will be regulation. I don’t know when, but I’m confident it will happen. There are already a number of environmental groups pushing for it. It’s hard to guess how long it’ll be before there’s sufficient pressure from the southern states that have had their multi-billion-dollar fishing industry wrecked.

What’s sad is that we were well on our way to taking a national leadership position on this issue. Half a dozen years prior to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the Iowa Legislature convened a task force to assess our natural resource and outdoor recreation needs. A pile of research, polling, and public meetings later, Iowans got to vote on a constitutional amendment that would create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. 63 percent of the voters in 2010 approved the amendment and the Trust Fund was created. 

Iowa's Capitol Building in Des Moines

Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. The legislature has yet to fund the trust despite the fact that even more Iowans today want to see it funded than did in 2010 when we created it. Funding it requires the legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign a 3/8 cent sales tax increase. That tax would generate an estimated $180 million per year toward natural resource and outdoor recreation programs across the state. More than 60 percent of the funding (over $100 million per year) would go to the types of water quality improvements prescribed in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

My next post will discuss the history of the Trust Fund, who was involved in recommending it to the legislature, and why and how the funds will be distributed when it does finally get funded. Spoiler alert: few things in Iowa’s history have received more bipartisan support.

Then next week I’m headed to Des Moines to attend an event with a few hundred other Iowans to show support (again) for funding the Trust. I intend to talk to some key people to find out why, right when the sustainable funding train had so much momentum, we failed to follow through. And I’m really curious to know why, when 7 out of 10 Iowans want the Trust funded, the legislature isn’t getting it done. And of course, I’ll be sure to let you know what they say.

Want to be part of the solution to Iowa’s water quality crisis? Share this post with the world on social media. While you're at it, join the coalition to #FundTheTrust at www.IowasWaterandLandLegacy.org.