(Not so) Wonderful News for Iowa’s Waters

I have wonderful news. Iowa will soon have cleaner water, more productive lands, and no longer risk federal regulation due to the state’s disproportionate contributions of nutrients causing the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

How soon? Somewhere between 93 and 31,000 years from now.

Yep, you heard that right folks. My future great-great-grandchildren won’t have to worry about harmful algae blooms or water quality advisories at public beaches the way my kids do now.

What a legacy we’re leaving.

Let’s back up a bit and take a landscape view of the situation. In past columns about flooding, I’ve noted how we do a poor job of holding water on the landscape. Now let’s look at that problem from a runoff perspective. Iowa’s cropland loses, on average, five tons per acre of topsoil per year. Five tons per acre may not seem like much, but multiplied by Iowa’s 26 million acres of cropland, that’s 130 million tons. Every year.

Let me put that in perspective. That amount of soil, if loaded into rail cars, would fill a train stretching from New York to Los Angeles three and a half times over. It would take eight and a half trains stretching from Minneapolis to New Orleans to hold that much soil. Imagine if those rail cars all dumped their cargo into our waterways. That’s essentially what we’re doing by letting all that soil run off our lands.

But the issue isn’t so much the soil itself. It’s what that soil contains. In that soil are the abundant nutrients that make our land so productive, including nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) and various other chemicals. Those nutrients, when added to water, cause massive algae blooms and a host of other water quality issues. Farther downstream, they cause what is known as the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of which is measured in thousands of square miles.

Graphic credit: NOAA
To address that ongoing environmental catastrophe, a federal plan was developed in 2008 that called for a 45 percent reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous reaching the Gulf. As the nation’s leading contributor of these nutrients, Iowa developed its Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) in response. It outlines practices for reducing nutrients in the state’s waters from both point and nonpoint sources at an estimated cost of up to more than a billion dollars annually.

I should note here the difference in nutrient sources. Point sources are things such as discharge pipes from factories and wastewater facilities. They contribute seven percent of the nitrogen and 21 percent of the phosphorus found in the state’s waterways. Those sources are highly regulated by a host of state and federal policies and mandates. Burlington’s state-mandated $150 million sewer separation project addresses point source pollution.

The remainder of Iowa’s nutrient loading (93 percent of N, 79 percent of P) comes from nonpoint sources: our fields, pastures, confinements, lawns, and drainage tiles. To address these sources, the NRS recommends, but does not mandate, a host of conservation practices including cover crops, buffer strips, bioreactors, wetlands, and others. And while the plan estimates the scale at which these practices need to be adopted to reach that 45 percent reduction goal, it provides no real timeline for doing so. Adoption of these practices by agricultural producers is completely voluntary.

Hence the geologic rate at which we can expect our water quality to improve. Recently, the Iowa Environmental Council analyzed implementation rates of conservation practices between 2013 and 2017, as reported in the NRS Annual Progress Reports. Their findings were not encouraging.

The use of cover crops has been increasing, though the rate of increase has slowed significantly in recent years. At the current rate of implementation, we’ll reach the NRS goal of 12.6 million acres in the year 2110. For perspective, that’s about the time it took communication systems to evolve from Pony Express to email.
It will take 913 years to reach the NRS goal for acres treated by wetlands, based on current implementation rates, which have slowed every year since adoption of the NRS. For perspective, the Second Crusade was launched only 872 years ago.

At the current rate of bioreactor implementation, it will be more than 30,000 years (about the time since Neanderthals roamed the earth) before we reach the NRS target for acres treated by bioreactors.

Graphic credit: Iowa Environmental Council
Sarcasm aside, we’re clearly not doing enough to address our water quality (or quantity) problems. Our water quality hasn’t measurably improved since 1999. Since 2003, Iowa’s nitrogen contribution to the Gulf has increased by 50 percent. If a sewer separation project in Burlington might “bankrupt the city” as noted by one Councilman, imagine what federal regulation on 26 million acres might do to the state’s economy.

That’s certainly not the legacy I want to leave my kids.
This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

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