Scaling back even a voluntary effort on clean water

Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Since 1998 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has led a volunteer program known as IOWATER to monitor local water quality around the state. Recent state budget cuts have forced the DNR to transfer administration of the program to a patchwork of willing nonprofits and local government agencies.

As reported by Iowa Public Radio, DNR will provide initial training and resources, but local government and nonprofit entities will be responsible for continued funding and administration of any volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

The outsourcing of IOWATER to local entities is just another example of the Iowa Legislature depending on voluntary action to deal with the statewide water-quality crisis. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was introduced in 2013, also relies heavily on voluntary conservation measures to address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution from both point and nonpoint sources. However, the NRS falls woefully short of reaching its funding targets and desired outcomes.

Our state has failed to appropriately and adequately address the largest source of water quality degradation — agricultural practices that continue pumping nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds. More than 90 percent of nitrogen and two-thirds of the phosphorus come from nonpoint sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

As we reported at the Iowa Policy Project in late 2016, “Iowa’s efforts in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico — or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams. There remains a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between producers’ business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of Iowa and the nation.”

Further highlighting the lack of a clear mandate to clean up our waters is the last legislative session, when the Legislature continued to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution from animal facilities, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. They passed little in new water quality funding, and what funding there was merely diverted resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety. (See our end-of-session statement).

We need to start treating clean water as the valuable public commodity that it is. Water feeds our crops, our pets, our livestock, our sports fish, our children, and our employers and employees. “Water is Life” became a popular mantra for a reason: There is no life without clean water. Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Posted by Sarah Garvin, Research Associate for the Iowa Policy Project

sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

Toxic blooms for Iowa waters

Iowa’s water-quality issues are likely to become more severe without well-funded mandates that are enacted and enforced.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently reported on the first toxic algal blooms of the summer beach season in Iowa. Two state park beaches posted swimming advisories warning people to stay out of the water because of the presence of high levels of microcystin. Microcystin is a toxin produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that can cause health issues, particularly in children and pets.

As summer water temperatures climb, these closures and warnings will become more commonplace. The Iowa Policy Project first published a report on cyanobacteria in 2009 — a year with only one swimming advisory. The advisories have increased each year since and last year there were 37. (IEC has compiled a history of warnings.)

Cyanobacteria quickly multiply into high-density blooms in the presence of excess nutrients in the water. Several research reports by the Iowa Policy Project (links below) concluded that the most significant contributing factor of nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin is from agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have the potential to not only restrict recreational activities in our waterways, but to obstruct access to clean drinking water. This happened most notably in 2014 when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water.

Clean drinking water in Iowa is already threatened because of high nutrient concentrations in our waterways. The recent Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three counties in north central Iowa highlighted this very problem. The DMWW must spend increasing sums to remove nutrients from the water obtained from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — so much it will now build a new nitrate removal facility. The nitrate present in these source rivers is primarily from agricultural runoff coming from the three counties named in the suit.

The magnitude of Iowa’s water quality issues cannot be overstated and the data we have show that these issues are only likely to deepen in severity without well-funded mandates for water quality that not only are enacted, but enforced. Voluntary conservation measures will not clean up our lakes, beaches, rivers and drinking water sources. If Iowa legislators are serious about luring businesses, jobs and families to this state, then it is time to make sure state revenues can support the protection of the very resource that supports our quality of life.

Sarah Garvin, research associate for the Iowa Policy Project
sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Related IPP Reports:

Scum in Iowa’s Water: Dealing with the Impact of Excess Nutrients,” December 2009, Andrea Heffernan and Teresa Galluzzo

Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm,” September 2010, Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer

A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” July 2014, David Osterberg and Aaron Kline

Saving Resources: Manure and Water,” May 2016, David Osterberg, Nick Fetty and Nathan Wong

 

Lost legacy of science and research?

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

Editor’s Note: The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a version of this piece online Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

While Iowans and others celebrate Earth Day on Saturday with a March for Science, many legislators have already tripped over their own votes.

Besides several cuts to higher education Iowa legislators have taken aim at particular scientific centers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

With the state’s second largest city and its largest university both almost recovered from massive flooding, they attacked the Flood Center at the UI, which may survive with a 20 percent cut to reward how its data and research have helped citizens of the state.

Certainly as troubling is the pending elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, and the farming out of duties at the Energy Center at ISU to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. So much for independent research.

One thing lost in these assaults is a sense of institutional memory. Those of us who started the Leopold Center some 30 years ago found agreement to assure Iowans a lasting resource independent of industry control and other research funding. And it has worked.

Much of the research on how to reduce agricultural damage to water quality has been started by the Leopold Center — more than 600 research projects, according to Leopold’s director, Professor Mark Rasmussen.

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Are you comfortable that Iowa’s premier research universities are being blocked from conducting research on topics including water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development?

In fact, as Rasmussen notes, many practices recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce agricultural pollution — including streamside buffers, erosion control measures, and bioreactors — “were first researched through Leopold Center funding.”

Now, the history of the Leopold Center is being reinvented by lawmakers attempting to erase a three-decade, bipartisan commitment to sustainable funding of independent research. They would eliminate the publicly directed mission and turn it over to businesses.

It is hard to know if these attacks are driven by politics or corporate interest. Maybe it is just Iowa’s version of an attack on science generally.

Either way, the bill eliminating the Leopold Center has passed the Senate and Iowans have only a short time to demand more from their elected officials in the House and the Governor. Voices rising helped to save the Flood Center with only a cut. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

 

David Osterberg, a state representative from Mount Vernon from 1983-1994, is co-founder and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Osterberg and fellow legislators Ralph Rosenberg and Paul Johnson were co-authors of the law that created the Leopold Center at Iowa State University.

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

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One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

Big state, big issues — an obligation for all

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

160104-osterberg-map-7x7I put up a new map at the IPP office this morning. It’s a big one — about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it’s impressive on a wall.

What makes it more impressive comes when you think of what that map represents, some 36 million acres of land, and to think of how those acres are used, and what we are doing to protect them.

Even though it’s mainly a road map, we see those roads plotted on a landscape that we know is mostly farmland — rivers, lakes and streams running through it, and dominated by it.

Each five years the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a census of agriculture. The last one from 2012 shows just how agriculture dominates our land. About 24 of the 36 million acres are in cropland nearly all corn and soybeans — though even more land is agricultural since activities like grazing push the total of ag land well beyond 30 million acres. Cropland, woodland and pasture make up so much of the landscape that the category house lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc. makes up only 1.4 million acres, or less than 5 percent of the total.

IPP pointed out in a 2010 report Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

When sewage treatment plants are included in the urban share of nutrient pollution, agriculture still dominates.

So the take-away message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agricultural land. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt — particularly the biggest one. It is not a voluntary matter.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

On big issues, Iowa leaders emerging locally

In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials will find a way to help their constituents.

If state leaders won’t lead, local leaders in Iowa are showing they will take up the job.

On three big issues in the last several months, we have seen this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to see a trend.

Public policy matters in Iowans’ lives, in critical ways. We elect people who can take care of it in a way that works for all Iowans, but not enough who will. In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials who also are hired to work for their constituents will find a way to help them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project