Is The Answer To Iowa’s Water Pollution Already Available?

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As anyone knows, drainage of farm chemicals into Iowa’s waterways has been one of the most contentious issues in the state in recent years at least if not longer.

Farm chemicals that have not been used by the plants in growing go someplace and when they do they often cause problems. You may remember that earlier this year a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works in which they were looking for upstream counties to do something about farm chemical pollutants in the water that Des Moines was using as the source for their drinking water. The amount of chemicals was making purifying the water more expensive and more difficult.

There have been various proposals in the state legislature, but leadership has failed to move on anything at the state level.

Last week, the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) released a proposal that would use the existing structure of the drainage district, a quasi-governmental unit on a local level, as the group that could be instrumental in solving this problem without needing more legislation or state involvement.

This is a proposal that should be given some serious thought.

On their website, IPP has both a full report on the proposal and a 2 page summary. While the summary gets to the points quickly, reading through the full report really adds much background that explains why this proposal makes such good sense.

A couple of paragraphs from the full report help to understand the thrust of what the report is proposing:

Because of the quasi-government organization of drainage districts, the possibility already exists to leverage the eminent domain and tax levying rights of drainage districts for the mitigation of water quality impacts within districts and to progress toward one of Iowa’s NRS goals. Drainage districts have the ability to raise funds to develop mitigation actions at the source or at discharge points that could include their eminent domain rights to acquire and manage wetlands and other conservation areas below their intermediate or final discharge points. If members of any drainage district object to their association using its powers for the good of the environment, any of the associations could ask for additional authority from the Iowa Legislature. While they may have the powers now, explicitly stating that drainage districts have an obligation to reduce nutrient pollution would not be inappropriate. 

An incentive for drainage districts to act is that they discharge water and contaminants at point sources making them potentially vulnerable to future re-interpretations of the Clean Water Act. Tile line discharge points are quantifiable and easily observed sources of water outflow. Drainage district-scale policies to reduce nitrate contamination entering public waters should be based on principles that either (1) increase the presence of plants during more months of the year (thereby reducing contamination at the source); or (2) remove contamination off site. Generally, addressing contamination at the source is both socially and economically more effective than cleaning up pollution offsite, once it enters public waters. Further, implementing mitigation at the drainage district level allows for local buy-in and tailoring mitigation methods specific to the needs of a drainage district.

Existing Voluntary Soil and Water Conservation Practices

The second mechanism through which drainage districts have the ability to improve water quality is the continued reliance on voluntary conservation practices to reduce nutrient loads entering our waterways; however, these measures have yet to be proven effective for achieving Iowa’s NRS nutrient reduction goals. Organizing and coordinating conservation measures at the scale of a drainage district — or among several adjoining districts — potentially can improve the outcomes of voluntary efforts using the existing quasi-public mechanism of drainage districts. Additionally, as drainage infrastructure ages and requires maintenance and replacement, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources permitting process should include requirements to improve the environmental quality of discharge water. Project engineers should confer with IDNR on cost-effective mitigation as part of system renovations.

farm chemical runoff

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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