FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE THURSDAY, NOV. 17, 2016
Scant progress against Iowa water pollution
New report examines water quality in Iowa and Mississippi River Basin
IOWA CITY, Iowa (Nov. 17, 2016) — Despite voluntary conservation efforts under Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, progress against nutrient pollution remains elusive.
“All Iowans want to see progress in meeting our goals to improve water quality,” said Sara Conrad, research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP) and lead author of a new report. “Not only do Iowans want cleaner water, but we deserve more accountability than we are getting for our state’s efforts to date.”
The new report from Conrad and David Osterberg of IPP and Michael Burkart, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher and Iowa State University professor, “Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin,” is available at www.iowapolicyproject.org.
Osterberg noted billions of state and federal dollars have been spent to improve water quality.
“The nation is demanding more progress,” Osterberg said. “The Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico are being damaged by continued nutrient pollution by nitrogen and phosphorus. This is a problem of land management, and no one is requiring the managers of the land to do better.”
The report examines progress toward goals of the 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), Iowa’s voluntary approach to the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution.
The report found:
- No improvement in the size of the hypoxic zone — or “dead zone” — in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Progress is overstated in the latest annual report for the NRS, with insufficient focus on long-term trends in conservation reserve acreage and instances where producers have abandoned conservation practices.
- While the use of cover crops has expanded, the 400,000 acres in cover crops in 2015 represents less than 2 percent of the 24 million acres in harvested row crops.
- Iowa farmers, in the Iowa State University Rural Life Poll, show more awareness of the NRS, but not necessarily of their need to participate in solutions.
- Monitoring for particulate and dissolved phosphorus in Iowa lakes and reservoirs has been stagnant, though river and stream monitoring has increased.
“Monitoring nutrient loads in watersheds is critical to accurately reporting trends to both the taxpayers paying for conservation and farmers implementing them,” said Burkart.
Conrad said “the science is clear.”
“Iowa must continue efforts to reduce nutrient levels in Iowa watersheds to improve water quality in not only Iowa’s streams and rivers but also the overall Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico,” she said.
The NRS report noted the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) shows increased acreage over the last five years. The IPP researchers said that isn’t the whole story.
“In fact, the longer-term trend is less positive,” Osterberg said. “Even with that recent improvement, Iowa remained a half million acres below the 2 million acres it once had in CRP.”
Researchers also noted farmers’ investment in conservation. In Iowa State University’s Farm and Rural Life Poll, 51 percent of farmers reported spending nothing on conservation in the 10 years prior to the 2011 survey. This improved by 2014, but even then, more than 40 percent of producers spent less than $5,000 over the previous 10 years, or less than $500 per year.
Moreover, the researchers pointed out, nearly half of farmers surveyed reported they were not certain their farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf.
“Clearly, awareness of the NRS is not enough to assure good practices are adopted voluntarily, and maintained.” Conrad said.
“Iowa’s efforts under the NRS show minimal if any progress on the health of the Gulf of Mexico, let alone Iowa’s waters. At best, we can say Iowa has not increased nutrient levels in streams. We need to actually reduce those levels to substantively reduce the size of the Gulf hypoxic zone and improve the health of Iowa water systems.”
The Iowa Policy Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization based in Iowa City. Reports are available at www.iowapolicyproject.org.
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We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the McKnight Foundation and the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation, which made the preparation of this report possible. While these funders support the research that went into this report, they may not necessarily agree with policy recommendations that are included. Policy recommendations are solely the perspective of the authors and the Iowa Policy Project.