Can more drainage paired with wetlands improve water quality and farmers’ profits? Let the research proceed, and until then, let’s withhold judgment.
We’ve all heard about the area of hypoxia, or the so-called “Dead Zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of all the rain and flooding this year and the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, scientists are expecting the Dead Zone to be the largest ever recorded.
It’s starting to appear that these rain events are becoming the “new normal” just as climate modelers have predicted. Therefore it is becoming even more imperative that we take steps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leaving Iowa fields and keep them from flowing downstream. The Wetland and Drainage Initiative that we write about in our latest report is an attempt by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to study one potential way for doing just that.
At the heart of it the concept behind the Initiative, which some know as “the Iowa Plan,” is the idea that enlarging the subsurface drainage(or “tile”) capacity will allow fields to dry faster thus increasing crop yields. The additional profits from the higher yields could then pay for the construction of nitrate removal wetlands that would be built at the outlets of the tiles. The larger tile capacity would mean more nitrate leaving the fields but the nitrates would be removed by the wetlands. That’s the theory — but it needs to be tested. That’s what IDALS is doing, in partnership with other agencies and groups, at several sites in north central Iowa.
We really don’t know for sure if this Initiative will work as touted and there are lots of questions, questions that hopefully will be answered with rigorous, transparent monitoring of the pilot sites. Rightly or wrongly there is a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding anything IDALS does and so the onus is on IDALS to demonstrate that these pilot projects, were they to be expanded across the tile-drained parts of the state, would actually have water quality and crop yield benefits and would not have unintended negative consequences.
A lot of research underlies the Initiative, and with thorough monitoring of the pilot sites scientists will probably know a lot more in five years. It’s possible that these treatment wetlands will be playing a much bigger role in the next few decades in Iowa, Illinois and other tile drained parts of the country, but in five years the data may also show that the concept just does not work. We’ll see.
We should avoid a situation where farmers are putting in larger tiles with no way of removing the extra nitrogen and therefore contributing even more to downstream water problems.
We should avoid subsidizing farmers’ installations of larger tiles.
We should avoid draining the few remaining wetlands we have left.
We should avoid putting scarce public dollars into programs that may not have benefits.
We also should avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. It’s going to take more than just these nitrate removal wetlands to get Iowa water quality to where it needs to be and there are lots of other steps that can be taken and existing programs that could use more resources in the meantime.
In short, this is a message to catch our breath and let the research tell us what’s happening. This Initiative combining enhanced drainage and nitrate-removal wetlands shows promise to benefit both farmers and water quality but until we see the numbers in a few years we will withhold judgment.
An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them — even as they benefit from government programs.
This NYTimes blog post is interesting enough, but what really caught my attention was a table from a recent academic political science paper that has made its way from liberal bloggers to a former Reagan economic advisor.
An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them, even as they benefit from government programs.
Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, but it could be worse.
My job here at IPP requires me to think a lot about water. Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, and there are certainly plenty of threats, but it could be worse. As Thanksgiving approaches here are a few things I’m thankful for:
2) We have adequate water (for the most part). You don’t have to go too far to find areas where water quantity is a serious concern, like in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Travel further, to places like Florida and the American southwest and the issues get even more serious. Certainly increased chances of drought in the Midwest are recognized as a possibility with climate change, but to date we’ve avoided drought for a few decades.
3) We don’t (yet!) have major oil pipelines running across our state. It just so happens that they rupture occasionally like this one did in Michigan. A few years ago, Wisconsin had an oil pipeline break, too. And now there’s a pipeline proposed that would cross Nebraska.
4) While we’ve seen our fair share of flooding in parts of the state, we’re not going to see the problems that coastal cities will as sea levels rise.
5) We don’t have acutely toxic groundwater like this city in California does.
Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.
I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.
What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?
In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.
Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.
We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created flooding problems, or create new policies that pose greater risk.
In 2008 it was Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. This year Ames is getting a turn. Oh, and throw in some serious flooding around Oskaloosa, Manchester, Colfax and elsewhere, not to mention the dam failure at Lake Delhi.
What’s going on? Why are towns, universities, farmers, the wealthy and the poor in Iowa all suffering from flood damage with frequencies far exceeding statistical expectations?
Point your finger at what you want: more development in flood plains and pavement everywhere, fewer functioning wetlands, degraded soil, more agricultural drainage tile, more row crops, and increasing frequency of heavy rains as a result of climate change. All play a role in causing havoc in Iowans’ lives and generating steep bills that have to be paid by someone, somehow.
What can be done? There are lots of things that need to be done, but a guiding principle that must be adhered to is a simple one: first, do no harm. We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created the problems in the first place, or worse yet, create new policies or programs that create even greater flooding risk. Should we continue to build in flood plains? Should we continue to pave over agricultural land to build sprawling surface parking lots? Should we continue to follow agricultural cropping practices that degrade soil quality and reduce the natural ability of the soil to hold on to water? Should we “improve” field drainage so that water flows into rivers and streams even faster? The simple answer to all of these questions is no. Of course nothing, including finding policies that will address these issues while not causing harm elsewhere, is ever simple.
Stay tuned as IPP will be looking at some of these issues in encouraging policies that improve the management and quality of Iowa’s waters in ways that benefit all Iowans.
As we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.
How much regulation is right for the United States? One might expect demand to rise after the speculative fury that ruined financial markets and then nearly destroyed the economy, or after the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, some guys still take every chance they can to get on TV claiming g’mnt is the problem, crying that the economy is overregulated and they want less of it.
Actually, too little regulation leads to great potential mischief. We have a great example of it right here in Iowa. In 2008 we had massive floods all over eastern Iowa. Short-term responses dealt with the aftermath of the disaster, but we faced long-term questions as well.
Sensible regulatory policy would try to avoid the worst effects of another flood. We could limit development in the 500-year flood plain or plan for dikes to be breached, to let water flow onto farmland rather than on to city streets. (Compensating farmers and landowners is a better option than rebuilding cities, businesses and homes.)
A committee of Iowa experts looked into how to avoid the worst disasters from flooding. They recommended limits on development and establishing ways to spread out the flood wave before it hit cities and built-up areas.
The result? Legislation to do both was introduced into the most recent legislative session but powerful farm groups and developers were too strong and nearly nothing was done.
The Gulf oil spill, bankers speculating on our country’s future, and unwise development in the flood plain are all good reasons to rein in markets. However, as we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.