Iowa Nutrient Plan's Voluntary Approach Draws Criticism

Iowa Farm Scene

Environmental groups say state's new nutrient reduction strategy to reduce farm runoff "lacks teeth."

Published on: December 18, 2012

It's been a month since Gov. Terry Branstad released the long-awaited Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy report for public comment. The report lays out the state's plan to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus leaving farm fields and entering lakes, rivers and streams. The plan is heralded by Iowa officials as praiseworthy and as an effective, workable approach to reduce pollution and improve water quality.

Branstad, along with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, say the plan is a big step forward and if carried out will help reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphorus finding its way into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa officials emphasize the plan is voluntary, using incentives and education instead of regulation. The goal is to get many more farmers and landowners to use certain farming practices and install more soil and water conservation measures on their land to improve and protect water quality.

DISAPPOINTED: Iowas recently released nutrient reduction strategy which aims to clean up the states waterways is open for public comment through January 4. Environmental groups are disappointed in the plan; they say it should take a regulatory approach. The plan calls for soil conservation and water quality improvements to be made voluntarily, using incentives such as cost-share funding and education to help farmers make the best decisions in choosing pollution reduction practices to use on their land.
DISAPPOINTED: Iowa's recently released nutrient reduction strategy which aims to clean up the state's waterways is open for public comment through January 4. Environmental groups are disappointed in the plan; they say it should take a regulatory approach. The plan calls for soil conservation and water quality improvements to be made voluntarily, using incentives such as cost-share funding and education to help farmers make the best decisions in choosing pollution reduction practices to use on their land.

Critics say the nutrient reduction plan won't work if it's done on a voluntary basis
However, in the eyes of environmental groups and other critics, the plan is "just another disappointing effort with no teeth." Many of the comments from the public are critical. Environmental groups and some individuals have blasted the report for relying on voluntary measures. The critics say a voluntary approach won't work. They say it won't get the job done. Or won't get it done fast enough. They want regulations, and recommend such action as getting the Iowa Legislature to ban practices like fall application of nitrogen fertilizer, for example. Or to require farmers to use certain soil conservation practices or fertilizer management practices.

Iowans have until January 4 to read the report and make comments on the plan to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus loss. January 4 is the final day for public comment. The document is at www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu and has a place to leave your comments online. Printed copies are available at county ISU Extension offices.

During the week of December 17 three informational meetings are being held across the state. Purpose of the meetings is for the public to come, ask questions and learn more about Iowa's nutrient reduction plan. The meetings are set for: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at Boulders Conference Center in Denison; 10 a.m. December 19 at the Memorial Union on the ISU campus in Ames; 10 a.m. December 21 at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo.

Nutrient reduction strategy is intended to address hypoxia problem in Gulf of Mexico
The plan, ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is intended to help solve the "dead zone" or hypoxia problem in the Gulf of Mexico, caused largely by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from crop fields in states along the Mississippi River and wastewater from sewage treatment plants. EPA has ordered the 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin to each submit a plan. Iowa officials have been developing the plan over the last two years. Iowa is only the second state to complete its plan. The other one is the state of Mississippi. The Iowa strategy sets as its long-term goal to reduce nitrogen discharges from nonpoint sources (farm fields) by 41% for nitrogen and 29% for phosphorus.

People who are critical of the Iowa plan say it has been four decades after passage of the federal Clean Water Act and relying on voluntary efforts has failed to prevent severe water quality problems both in Iowa and in the Gulf of Mexico where a large share of the nation's commercial fishing and shrimping industry is located. The hypoxia area in the water in the Gulf, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, is referred to as the "dead zone" because it can no longer support aquatic life.

"What a disappointment," wrote Deb Shiel-Larson, one of the people commenting on the Iowa plan. She is a Johnston city planner working on storm-water issues. "The situation this 'strategy' attempts to address and fails to address is way, way past voluntary efforts. We know our topsoil is melting away. We know our drinking water is polluted. If 'voluntary' is working, why spend so much time working on these documents?"

Iowa officials have spent the past two years developing this nutrient reduction plan
The 197-page Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released at a press conference November 19 by Gov. Branstad. The Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and a team of Iowa State University scientists worked on the plan for two years before coming up with the strategy that was released for public comment.

A West Des Moines man who made a public comment said he's disappointed that the clean-up of Iowa's water would rely heavily on the voluntary actions of farmers who would be using taxpayer-subsidized cost-share programs to help pay for soil and water conservation work on their land. The plan calls for installation of more terraces, grass waterways, wetlands, bioreactors, buffer strips, etc. on farmland across Iowa. As taxpayers, says the man, "We've already tried voluntary approaches and have funded these approaches substantially."

A woman from Solon says, "Not all farmers are good stewards of the land. I've seen farmers removing trees and grass along creeks, leaving no buffer. And they farm right up to the edge of the creek."

Farmers point out it's in their best financial interest to avoid soil nutrient losses
While non-farmers are making their thoughts known on the website, farmers are also leaving comments on the site. Farmers point out that it is against their financial interests to let soil, chemicals and fertilizer wash off their fields. So farmers do all they can to avoid such losses.

A farm owner in Sac County suggested local soil and water conservation districts do more to address water quality issues. SWCD's should be required to set goals for water quality as a priority in working with farmers and landowners, and make sure best management practices are used or else the farmer and landowner should pay back the conservation cost-share funding.

A Center Junction man suggests people other than farmers need to help, too. Homeowners' lawn care habits need to be examined. Homeowners who buy fertilizer and apply it to their lawns sometimes think a little is good, a lot is better. Farmers, fertilizing their corn, are only going to apply what is needed. It's simple economics. Another person leaving a comment said, "People who don't sweep lawn fertilizer from driveways and sidewalks also add to runoff problems."

This strategy addresses both point source and non-point source pollution
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy report points out there are two sources of pollution—point sources such as sewage treatment plants and factories, and non-point sources such as farms and urban areas. Passage of the federal Clean Water Act 40 years ago forced pollution reduction by factories and sewage treatment plants which are point sources. But runoff from farm fields and urban areas, which are nonpoint sources, hasn't been regulated. However, runoff from livestock facilities, which are point sources, is regulated.

The U.S. Geological Survey says 70% of the nitrates causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico come from agriculture. Ag groups have consistently pushed for voluntary programs that provide farmers with cost-share funding to help pay farmers to conserve soil, chemicals and fertilizer. Environmental groups have pushed for regulations on fertilizer.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and researchers at Iowa State University, as they worked for the past two years to put together the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, rated the effectiveness of various conservation and fertilizer management practices in reducing the loss of nutrients from farm fields. Besides looking at what agriculture can do, the report also includes plans developed by the Iowa DNR to improve more than 100 sewage-treatment plants.

Tax-paying public wants a return on its investment in agriculture programs
One comment a man from Dubuque left on the website says, "Since agriculture causes 70% of nutrient pollution in streams and lakes in Iowa, mandatory rather than voluntary nutrient reductions need to occur. My federal tax dollars subsidize farmers' crop insurance. As long as they are receiving federally subsidized crop insurance, farmers should be required to use conservation practices that reduce nutrient runoff. It is not fair for people in the Gulf of Mexico, people who are making their living there such as commercial fishermen, to be impacted by insufficient practices to control nutrient runoff by Iowa farmers."

Others comments left on the website point out that a clean environment drives economic activity just as farming does. One man writes, "Recreation is a sizeable business. Dirty waters aren't conducive to good recreational opportunities."

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, Gov. Terry Branstad, and Chuck Gipp, director of Iowa DNR, defend the plan's voluntary approach. "The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy takes a completely voluntary, science-based approach," says Northey. "It's not a regulatory effort but I think it's going to be quite helpful to farmers and will change and improve the way we manage our land and water quality in Iowa. But it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time and extensive participation by farmers to get this job done."

Northey will ask Iowa Legislature for more conservation cost-share funding to help improve water quality
It's also going to take more resources. Northey recently met with Gov. Branstad to discuss the ag department's budget request for the next fiscal year. Northey will ask the Iowa Legislature when it convenes in January for an increase of $2.4 million for the 2013-2014 state budget year. Most of that money would go to increase the amount of state conservation cost-share funding available, plus some of it would be spent on staff and related costs as part of the effort to get the Iowa nutrient reduction plan started. Northey will ask for an increase of $4.4 million in the following fiscal year.

Northey speaks to this issue of pollution control and water quality as a farmer himself, and notes that by and large the folks who farm the land in Iowa care about this and they want to do whatever they can to improve their land and protect the water.

Farmers do care about land and water, and are already doing a lot to address soil and water concerns
"Farmers are doing a lot already to care for the land," he notes. "We have conservation cost-share programs we administer from the Iowa Department of Agriculture funded by the state of Iowa. We will pay in excess of $10 million this year in cost-share funding to help farmers and landowners install terraces, grass waterways and other structures and practices."

As part of that conservation cost-share, farmers will pay in excess of $15 million out of their own pocket to participate in those programs, notes Northey. Also, they'll borrow almost another $10 million per year to put practices in on their own -- paying the entire cost themselves using a conservation loan program the state has available.

These conservation programs primarily address soil erosion, but they have water quality benefits as well. "We believe over a period of time we can meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy," says Northey. "But it's going to take different practices that work best on each farm. This plan provides that information. For two years, with the hard work of ISU scientists and specialists at IDALS and DNR, we've worked to evaluate and rate various conservation practices to help farmers figure out which methods will work best on their farm, in their situation."

Why a voluntary approach is the best route to take to improve water quality
SUMMING UP: "Farmers in Iowa do care about the land and the water," says Northey. "They want these voluntary programs that provide cost-sharing, along with useful information and recommendations to help them address water quality problems. Farmers prefer an approach that helps them determine which practices are best to protect water quality and will work on their farm. If we can provide farmers with the right combinations of these tools, so they can choose and use the best practices, I believe that's the best way to get the job done, to protect water quality and do it most efficiently and most effectively."

Northey adds, "I think if we took a regulatory approach, if that was the alternative, farmers would spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to avoid the regulations. They would figure out how to technically comply with the rules, to get along, but it would not really improve water quality as much as it would with a voluntary approach. With the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, using incentives and education, I believe farmers will engage in finding ways of doing a better job of managing their farmland and this will have a much more effective and positive impact on improving Iowa's land and water quality."