State Officials Defend Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy

Iowa Farm Scene

Iowa leaders say voluntary approach to reducing farm runoff will work if given a chance.

Published on: July 31, 2013

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and other state officials defended the new Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy when they spoke at a soil and water conservation field day recently in Madison County. The conservation tour was held on the farm of Frederick and Helen Martens near Winterset. The statewide strategy takes a voluntary, farmer-led approach to reducing the amount of nitrate and phosphorus leaving Iowa farm fields.

The strategy recommends best management practices and its goal is to reduce the amount of nutrients entering streams and rivers in Iowa and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrients originating from Iowa and other states in the Mississippi River Basin are contributing to the Gulf's hypoxia problem which is hurting the fishing industry there.

VOLUNTARY VS. REGULATORY: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (right) and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey discussed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at a recent conservation tour of a farm in Madison County. Iowa officials are receiving criticism over the plan to reduce the amount of nitrate and phosphorus entering the states streams and rivers. The strategy is a voluntary and educational approach, which environmental groups and other critics say wont work. They contend a regulatory approach is needed to get the job done.
VOLUNTARY VS. REGULATORY: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (right) and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey discussed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at a recent conservation tour of a farm in Madison County. Iowa officials are receiving criticism over the plan to reduce the amount of nitrate and phosphorus entering the state's streams and rivers. The strategy is a voluntary and educational approach, which environmental groups and other critics say won't work. They contend a regulatory approach is needed to get the job done.

Recently finalized, the Iowa nutrient reduction plan is now moving into implementation phase. Farmers and landowners are being urged to adopt recommended soil conservation and fertilizer management practices to improve water quality. Critics of the strategy say it needs to be regulatory, not voluntary, if it is to achieve its goals.

Critics of the Iowa nutrient reduction plan are calling for more regulations which they say are needed to improve water quality

The critics include environmental groups, as well as the director of the City of Des Moines Water Works and others. Critics of the strategy blame farmers for the state's impaired waterways, saying farmers apply too much fertilizer and manure to fields, which runs off with soil erosion or leaves fields via tile drainage. An increasing number of people are calling for more regulations and fines on farmers and landowners, as a way to clean up the state's impaired streams and rivers.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

The governor told the crowd of about 50 people on the Madison County conservation farm tour he doesn't believe farmers are bad stewards of the land. They don't recklessly over-apply fertilizer. "In fact, the opposite is true," he says. "I support the nutrient reduction strategy as a practical approach that will work with landowners, cities and other stakeholders in a scientific and cost-effective manner. It's very much in the farmers' interest not to over-apply nutrients. Fertilizer is a significant crop production cost for farmers; and manure nutrients are valuable too."

Iowa landowners and farmers will need to install more man-made wetlands, along with other soil and water conservation practices

Branstad told the crowd that building more wetlands statewide, along with putting a number of other soil conservation practices on the land will improve water quality. Those practices include installing more terraces, grass waterways, widespread use of cover crops, more no-till acres, as well as construction of man-made wetlands. Wetlands act as a natural filter to remove nitrates and phosphorus from water before it enters the creek and leaves the farm. A 3-year old constructed wetland was featured on the conservation tour on the Martens farm.

With Branstad on the tour were Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. They explained how the strategy was developed over the past few years by a task force of representatives from the Iowa Department of Ag & Land Stewardship, the Iowa DNR and Iowa State University scientists. The plan is available here.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Northey and Gipp joined Branstad for a ceremonial re-signing of legislation to help fund Iowa's new nutrient reduction plan, money to help get the strategy started. Branstad had originally signed the bill into law a month earlier (on June 17). The bill appropriates $22.4 million in new state funding to help provide cost-share money for farmers and landowners, to encourage and help them put more soil and water conservation practices on the land to improve water quality.

State officials are making the case for a voluntary, not regulatory, nutrient reduction plan

The strategy's recommendations are based on "what science tells us regarding how farmers and landowners can use different combinations of nutrient management practices that will work for their farm, in their particular situation," says Northey. "We encourage farmers to use more of these recommended conservation and management practices to show how the practices can really make a difference in improving water quality."

Northey adds, "Over a period of time, we'll see the innovation that happens in agriculture, as new conservation methods and ways to measure the results are developed, as we try other ways of fertilizing crops and make sure nutrients are used by crops rather than leave the farm. Keeping a voluntary focus with this strategy, we'll see creativity and innovation, which will allow farmers to more aggressively address pollution problems. I think regulation, on the other hand, stops such innovation."

"Dead Zone" in Gulf of Mexico this year is smaller than expected, but still a lot bigger than a federal task force's goal to reduce it

It was announced a week ago that the hypoxia area or "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico this year is smaller than expected. However, the oxygen-deprived area, which results largely from fertilizer runoff from Midwest fields, covers an area bigger than Connecticut. According to the annual report from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium's cruise aboard the Pelican, a ship LUMCONN uses to measure the hypoxia zone, this year's zone covers 5,800 square miles. Scientists had expected a near-record zone of hypoxia of 7,300 or 8,600 square miles because of heavy spring rains in the Midwest and unused fertilizer runoff from last year's corn crop. Last year's yields were reduced by drought so the crop didn't use all the fertilizer that was applied.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Last year the Dead Zone was 2,889 square miles, the fourth-smallest on record because of the drought. The record, in 2002, was 8,481 square miles, and the smallest was 15 square miles in 1988. The average over the past 5 years has been 5,176 square miles. The federal task force working on the Dead Zone wants the hypoxic area reduced to 1,930 square miles.

The Louisiana scientists say high winds in the Gulf kept the Dead Zone smaller than had been predicted, preventing hypoxia from forming in places this summer. Not only was the area smaller than expected, but oxygen levels in the water were relatively high, even in the Dead Zone.

The low-oxygen Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused in part by Midwest fertilizers which cause algae to grow in the Gulf. When algae die, they consume oxygen, forcing sea creatures to move elsewhere or die. That disrupts the Gulf area, one of the nation's top fishing areas. Iowa is the nation's top corn growing state and is the source of some of the biggest nitrogen loads entering the Mississippi River flowing to the Gulf.

Iowa Environmental Council says Dead Zone signifies lack of action by U.S. EPA and state regulatory agencies

"Giving a voice to the majority of Iowans who share this concern, we have repeatedly called on state leaders to set clear, measurable goals for reducing Iowa's contribution to the Dead Zone," says Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. "Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the state government's proposed plan, does not currently explain how this will take place. The plan has no timetable or deadline to reach its clean water goals. The many stakeholders—those who rely on Iowa's waters for drinking water supply or for fishing or canoeing—they have no way of knowing when that progress will be made or how the progress will be measured."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

The consequences of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution aren't limited to the Dead Zone in the Gulf; they pose a serious problem in Iowa's waters too, says Rosenberg. "This year Iowa has seen significant threats to safe drinking water, high rates of soil erosion and the presence of harmful algae blooms in many Iowa lakes. It all suggests additional conservation action would benefit Iowans as well as people living downstream."

Environmental groups are pushing for numeric standards to be set for nitrate and phosphorus in streams, rivers and lakes

The news from last week's cruise of the Pelican, LUMCON's ship, came a week after Iowa ag secretary Bill Northey told an Iowa Farm Bureau conference that voluntary soil conservation and nutrient management practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy are the answer and can significantly reduce runoff pollution. He staunchly contends that putting more regulations on farmers won't work. He says more progress in solving pollution will come from the government working with farmers via a voluntary conservation and nutrient management approach—using education, information and scientifically-based recommendations. Along with conservation cost-sharing provided by the government.

But the Iowa Environmental Council and other environmental groups such as the Gulf Restoration Network aren't buying that strategy. They are calling for numeric standards to be established for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus. The network's executive director, Cynthia Sarthou, says "Since states have chosen to drag their feet on reducing pollution that's causing the dead zone, it is the federal EPA's responsibility to set strong standards." A coalition of environmental groups, known as the Mississippi River Collaborative, sued the U.S. EPA last year to force the agency to set and enforce numeric standards for nitrate and phosphorus in waterways. The lawsuit is pending.