Water Quality Efforts Percolate in Iowa
Iowa adopted the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 – a voluntary, open-ended approach to drop nitrogen and phosphorus loads by 45 percent. The program’s own assessments found over 90 percent of the state’s nutrient flows were generated through agriculture.
Iowa is a leader in several farm commodities, but collateral damage – in the form of runoff-impaired waterways – has spurred legal actions designed to thwart pollution linked to agriculture. While ultimately dismissed, those moves may have helped cultivate renewed interest in farm conservation.
Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “Because our lawsuit went away, the Raccoon River did not clean up. The Des Moines River did not clean up. There’s still nutrient contamination that still needs to be addressed and we want to have those conversations.”
Ted Corrigan is current CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works, which sued farm drainage districts upstream in 2015 over excess nitrates the utility must remove in order to deliver federally compliant clean drinking water.
Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “We’re never going to be off the river. We’re always going to need direct surface water at Des Moines Water Works, and so we are always going to fight for water quality.”
Critics charge excess fertilizers and manure, applied year-over-year at similar rates, can build up during drought – and flush out of fields with ever-wetter spring rains.
Chris Jones/Research Engineer/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research – University of Iowa: “This is a nitrate sensor.”
The University of Iowa maintains a statewide network of roughly 70 streambank monitoring sites. The real-time data helps chart progress toward the state’s water quality objectives.
Iowa adopted the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 – a voluntary, open-ended approach to drop nitrogen and phosphorus loads by 45 percent. The program’s own assessments found over 90 percent of the state’s nutrient flows were generated through agriculture. Scientists have long tied farm pollutants in the Mississippi River watershed, where Iowa is grounded, to the Gulf of Mexico’s seasonal low-oxygen Hypoxic Zone.
Chris Jones/Research Engineer/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research – University of Iowa: “As I always say, if you’re going to have a voluntary strategy – you need volunteers.”
Chris Jones is an outspoken Research Engineer with the University of Iowa who says the issue is driven by a combination of ubiquitous highly-efficient farm drainage tiles and relatively low uptake of methods like cover crops – which help slow the flow of water and nutrients off rural landscapes.
Chris Jones/Research Engineer/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research – University of Iowa: “There’s no magic bullet here. We have a problem of scale. We’re trying to farm every piece of farmable land, pretty much in the state. We’re trying to raise 25 million hogs at any one time, and however many cattle and 80 million laying chickens.”
Jones says researchers estimate some $3 billion is required annually to adequately tackle the problem of flooding and water quality in Iowa’s watersheds – so private landowner investment is essential – but elusive.
Chris Jones/Research Engineer/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research – University of Iowa: “Can we ever get the water quality we want at the scale at which we are doing things? Right now, I would say no we cannot.”
As needed, Des Moines Water Works employs their mammoth, but aging, nitrate removal facility – which costs around $10,000 per day to operate. The plant was fired up again for 24 days this spring – the first time since 2017.
Corrigan says inflation could bump operational supply costs by 10 percent in subsequent years. Water Works plans to continue proactively drilling riverside wells to mitigate future nutrient surges.
The utility recently announced a groundbreaking partnership between Heartland Cooperative, Water Works, state, county and city authorities – to purchase a cover crop seeder and encourage more conservation.
Ted Corrigan/CEO & General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “We see this single cover crop seeder as the beginning of a whole fleet of these across the state.”
Sec. Mike Naig/Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship: “We believe that that’s the right way to approach these issues, is: science-based practices, and working together in partnership…and flat out – if you want to see improvement in the water, well then you’ve got to see change on the landscape.”
Ruth McCabe/Conservation Agronomist/Heartland Cooperative: “We pitched the idea to the whole group and said: ‘You know, we know this is crazy, but what do you think about trying to do what Kansas City did?’ – And there were four public entities that didn’t laugh us out of the room.”
Senior Conservation Agronomist Ruth McCabe modeled Heartland’s project after a similar regional approach. While some local funds trickled down to Iowa through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, participants would still be on the hook for seed and application fees. McCabe says while other cost-sharing programs could allow some first-time adopters to break-even, she’s witnessed much more aggressive measures in watersheds tied to the Chesapeake Bay in New England.
Ruth McCabe/Conservation Agronomist/Heartland Cooperative: “I think if a farmer could get $80 an acre to use cover crops, I think we’d see a heckuva lot more cover crops on the landscape in Iowa. LAUGHS. I can almost guarantee that.”
The Iowa legislature has claimed strides toward funding clean water initiatives, but environmental groups say the 2022 session was business as usual. Attempts to funnel tax dollars toward a water quality amendment, as passed overwhelmingly by voters over a decade ago, were shot down once again. State authorities cite a $5 million federal cash infusion for a partnership in the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, as farm interests try to chip away at the problem while avoiding the specter of intrusive federal environmental regulations.
For Jones, measures he says lack accountability are still not enough to move the needle - as rural influence can drown out urban concerns on this topic.
Chris Jones/Research Engineer/Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research – University of Iowa: “We really need to look at some common sense things. We farm right up to the stream banks all over Iowa. Why do we do that? We need rules about what can be farmed, what inputs should be used, and the amount of inputs – if we want water quality. If that’s our priority, we have to be able to talk about things like that.”
For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.