Rosenberg: Water problem ‘self evident,’ but will state officials act?

In many parts of Iowa last summer, the state’s poor water quality was plainly evident. Algae blooms, helped along by high water temperatures and low water levels, clogged many waterways.

Ralph Rosenberg

Ralph Rosenberg is the executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

These blooms are a sign that far more of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous are present in Iowa’s waters than should be there in a healthy ecosystem. Combine this with chronic soil erosion which continues around the state, and you have Iowa’s polluted waters, which are more frequently brown and green than clear and clean.

Nitrogen and phosphorous pollution comes from many sources, including agriculture, wastewater from cities and industries, and other sources. In Iowa, research shows that most of this pollution comes from agricultural sources.

In November, with much fanfare, state government released Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy, a plan that state officials say will help resolve this pollution problem. Developed over two years, the strategy calls on cities to install — and their residents to pay for — mandatory new wastewater treatment practices that will provide some benefits. It also includes an important new Iowa State University science assessment that can guide improvements on, around and downstream from Iowa’s farm fields.

Unfortunately, though, as the plan is currently written, the strategy is not likely to achieve Iowans’ goals for cleaner water.

First, unlike the approach used for cities, the strategy continues to rely on all-voluntary farm conservation programs, which have fallen short of protecting our waters in the past. Even though research clearly shows significantly increasing farmer participation in conservation programs is critical for success of the plan, the document does not set timetables or goals to ensure that this will happen.

Iowa does have a group of outstanding conservation-minded farmers who are achieving important results. However, Iowa’s “new” strategy continues to depend on these farmers to step forward even if their neighbors do not.

A 2011 survey by Iowa State University reported that 72 percent of Iowa farmers spent less than $5,000 on conservation practices on land they own in the decade prior to the survey. Half spent nothing. One third said even if more money and technical assistance were available to them, they would still not implement more conservation practices. (See the note with this column to learn where to find this report.)

Although the strategy sets a price tag for proposed conservation efforts with initial costs as high as $1.2 billion to $4 billion, it does not explain where this money will come from or when.

Second, the strategy fails to list either short-term or long-term goals for water quality improvements for Iowa’s rivers and lakes. Without setting clear goals for clean water in Iowa at the outset, it will be difficult for Iowans to assess whether the strategy has been successful.

Third, while the strategy contains important research on farmland conservation practices by an Iowa State University-led team, additional work is needed to explain how this research will be put to good use.

The Iowa State team examined how successful currently available conservation practices are at reducing water pollution. Their research suggested combinations of actions by Iowa farmers that could achieve the goals of the strategy, if implemented broadly across the state. The science team states these combinations are suggestions, not policy recommendations, and the policy portion of the document does not propose a combination of practices Iowa should implement, or set goals or timelines for doing so.

Further, the strategy made efforts to quantify the costs of implementing various practices, but it did not attempt to estimate the economic and quality of life benefits Iowans would enjoy if we achieve our clean water goals.

For Iowans who choose to travel out of state to fish or canoe in cleaner water, Iowa’s pollution problem is self-evident. For Iowans who grew up swimming in the Raccoon River and no longer feel safe letting their children swim there, the problem is self-evident. For those living in municipalities that have to construct multi-million-dollar water treatment facilities, the problem is self-evident.

These Iowans want to join together with others to solve this problem, but unfortunately, the strategy was written mostly behind closed doors with minimal public input.

Now, after the release of this strategy, the public should challenge state government leaders to explain how they will establish accountability and measure success. Iowans want clear, measurable results for actually achieving clean water.

Fortunately, the science has never been clearer on how Iowa can achieve this result. The question now is whether our leaders will commit to making sure the job gets done.

This essay also appeared in the Des Moines Register on January 6, 2012.

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One response to “Rosenberg: Water problem ‘self evident,’ but will state officials act?

  1. Pingback: Rosenberg: Questions linger about effectiveness of new state water plan | Iowa Environmental Council Blog