Voters have indicated their support for increasing funding to improve water quality in Iowa, earmarking part of the next sales tax increase for clean water. So far, the protected trust fund for outdoor recreation and water quality remains empty.
Our latest water quality report addresses these issues:
- What has been the state’s spending commitment to water quality over the past 15 years?
- How much of state and federal dollars goes to reduce nutrient pollution in Iowa?
- How much spending is needed to make meaningful water quality progress?
- How can the state raise adequate revenue to make an impact?
We identified 16 primarily state-level programs that fund water quality improvements. Funding in the most recent year hasn’t even reached 2008 to 2009 levels.
The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), implemented in 2013, was created to reduce nutrient pollution that creates a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy was advertised as a new commitment by the state to reduce Iowa’s pollution of our own rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the NRS, we find that state water quality spending has dropped off and struggled to return to pre-2008 recession levels.
The Water Resources Coordinating Council is tasked with overseeing NRS progress, and measures the financial resources dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution from the state of Iowa to the Mississippi River system. The most recent NRS report shows $512 million was spent in state and federal dollars on Iowa nutrient reduction in 2017. However, the state is largely riding the wave here; the real money comes from federal funding.
While it was assumed that adopting the NRS would increase Iowa’s commitment to water quality, it did not — though at the same time pollution has increased. Recent research indicates Iowa’s share of nutrient loading into the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds actually increased between 2000 and 2016.
In 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that appropriates $282 million to water quality efforts over the next 12 years. This gesture compares poorly even to existing — and lacking — government water quality spending. Iowa is nowhere near to what is needed.
How much money does it really take to make a meaningful impact on Iowa water quality? The NRS document, written mainly by Iowa State University, estimated the cost of reducing nonpoint contamination under three scenarios. All were in the billions of dollars.
The Iowa Soybean Association estimates for nutrient reduction costs in just one river basin, the Lime Creek Watershed, implies a statewide need of $1.4 billion a year for about 15 years. These estimates demonstrate the inadequacy of the 2018 spending bill.
Current investments are not resulting in discernible improvements in Iowa’s water quality. Two options available for generating the amount of revenue needed include removing the exemption of fertilizer used in agriculture and taxing it like other commodities.
A second option is fully funding the environmental trust that voters approved in a statewide referendum in 2010. Estimated revenue from either of these sources would bring more than $100 million per year. We need to tap new sources to make our state commitment to water quality equal to the task. Until then, we are only paying lip service to the problem.
 Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report. Page 9.
 Christopher Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling, & Larry Weber, “Iowa stream nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico.” April 2018. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195930&type=printable
 Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Reynolds signs water quality bill, her first as governor.” January 2018. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/31/reynolds-signs-water-quality-bill-her-first-governor/1082084001/
 Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs & Services, “Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Plan: A roadmap for improved water quality, sustained agricultural productivity & reduced flood risk. N.D. https://www.iasoybeans.com/search/?q=lime+creek
Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. firstname.lastname@example.org