At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?
Lawmakers in Des Moines working on the state budget should remember that 63 percent of Iowans approved of a constitutional amendment creating a new fund for natural resources and water quality in the state. And now there is new evidence that that funding is needed.
The 10 water quality programs we looked at most saw significant declines of around 30 percent when adjusted for inflation. These programs provide a good snapshot of overall water quality funding in the state.
Numbers can sometimes be deceiving and in some cases look better than they really are. The water monitoring program of the DNR, for instance, has maintained nominal funding of about $2.9 million for nine straight years. Because of shifting money within the department, however, the monitoring program is not able to monitor things like groundwater quality, or test for pesticides and pharmaceuticals like it used to.
Money is not the only factor in improving Iowa water quality, but it is a necessary part of any effort. Iowa’s water quality can be improved. For evidence, just look at trout streams in northeast Iowa, which have made dramatic improvements since the mid-1980s, with six or seven times more streams having naturally reproducing trout now.
Improvements like that won’t happen without funding and the state’s current investment in water quality is not going to be adequate to make a significant improvement across the state. If these trends continue where will be in another 10 years? At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?
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.