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