Responding to Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy

Iowa Row Crops

I continue to encourage readers to make formal comments on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy before Jan. 4.

The impact of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zones that are created from agricultural runoff has been grievous enough to activate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. The problem asks for a solution, and the federal government has jurisdiction.

The strategy currently open for comments is the Iowa part of a response to the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan. As indicated elsewhere, Iowa is the second of twelve states to develop a strategy, and the executive branch developed the current documents in isolation from public discourse, with significant input from the Iowa Farm Bureau.

The response period, sandwiched between the 2012 general election and the beginning of the 85th Iowa General Assembly, seems designed to minimize public and legislative comments. Activist groups, like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement the Environmental Working Group, and the Iowa Policy Project have begun to weigh in, but unless a citizen has been following the issue for a number of years, comments on the plan are difficult to develop with a reasoned approach.

What has bothered me about Governor Branstad’s strategy is it’s similarity to the way the George W. Bush administration removed the climate crisis from its agenda. According to former Vice President Al Gore,

“we now know that during the first weeks of the administration, Vice President Cheney began meeting with his infamous Energy Task Force and secretly advised lobbyists for polluters that the White House would take no action on global warming. He then asked for their help in designing a totally meaningless ‘voluntary’ program.”

This voluntary program was meant to be cover for the president as he dismantled the Kyoto accord and other environmental regulations. Substitute “Gov. Branstad” for “Vice President Cheney,” the “Iowa Farm Bureau” for “infamous Energy Task Force,” “nutrient runoff” for “global warming” in the quoted text, and the parallels are compelling.

While a dash of cynicism is reflected in my views, it is important to develop a reasoned response to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Even the most strident opponents to regulating water quality understand that if the voluntary strategy is unsuccessful, the EPA will step in and they don’t want that.

I am nowhere near being finished reading all the documentation, but the framework of my response would include the following elements:

  • Doing nothing about agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous is unacceptable. The creation of hypoxia zones in the Gulf of Mexico must be mitigated to protect marine life that is important both to our economy and to the well-being of the oceans. Iowa is a significant contributor to hypoxia zones.
  • That the strategy seeks to get the “biggest bang for the buck” by including some of the largest wastewater treatment facilities is a red herring. As someone who helped manage a rural wastewater treatment plant, in our operation, we had no budget for voluntary measures. We made sure our output complied with regulations, but financially we were not in a position to do anything more than ask our customers to reduce input of phosphorous containing detergents and use backyard composting to dispose of kitchen waste. Any program to control nutrient runoff from wastewater treatment plants should include changes in existing regulations.
  • While it is true, as Farm Bureau spokespeople have indicated, there is a diversity of geographic and topological considerations, the Pareto principle should be applied to agricultural runoff. Getting bogged down in diversity cannot be a substitute for timely action.
  • We are kidding ourselves if we do not believe that the substantial amount of farm field drainage tile in Iowa is a primary contributor to chemical runoff. Even today, farm fields near my home are installing new drainage tile, increasing the potential for chemical runoff. Any nutrient reduction strategy has to deal with the twofold issue of drainage tile and potential regulation of its use, and planting cover crops that help keep nitrogen in the soil rather than leaching to a tile.
  • The comment period should be extended to enable the input of the Iowa legislature.

Whether Iowa can get beyond the hyperbole and powerful interest group concerns in its nutrient reduction strategy is an open question. Solving the problem of hypoxia zones is too important to eschew a reasoned approach and there is room for a voluntary aspect to solutions. We must try everything we can think of the solve the problem, and there is a role for regulation.

To learn more and make comments on Iowa’s Nutrient reduction Strategy, follow this link.

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One Response to Responding to Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy

  1. Erv Klaas says:

    The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy shows how this state is hamstrung by “thinking in the box”. Fifty percent cost share incentives and voluntary compliance has been tried for more than 50 years and it hasn’t worked. The legislature, the farmers, the Farm Bureau, and its lobbyists wants to maintain the status quo of eroding soil and unregulated pollution forever. Until the state sets goals for nutrient reduction, using Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) methodology for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment and passes laws to regulate same, Iowa rivers and lakes will continue to get worse.

    We need change, radical change. I would start by (1) re-organizing the County Soil and Water Districts into Watershed Management Authorities with regulatory powers to enforce TMDL standards. Cities and towns are subject to regulations but agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the pollution. (2) Reform the drainage laws to conform to soil and water regulations and place the administration of drainage districts under the authority of the Watershed Management Authorities. (3) Adequately fund these Authorities to do their job. (4) Restore the health of the soil by restoring organic matter to a minimum of six percent and require all farms to have a soil and water conservation plan. (5) Require all farms to plant a fall cover crop. (6) Develop a new land ethic based on long-term sustainability instead of the short-term, “so-called free market.”

    Erv Klaas
    Retired ecologist and former Soil and Water District Commissioner (12 years)



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