Group: INRS needs practical solutions
FORT DODGE – Solving Iowa’s surface water quality issues is a complex matrix of inter-related sciences, with expensive solutions, compounded by rural versus urban talking points.
It makes for confusion, rural-urban distrust and public funding that lags far behind what’s required, all of which slows the whole process.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
That was the message March 19 during a Practical Solutions to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy meeting at Iowa Central Community College, in Fort Dodge.
State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, said she sees the need to get awareness to all Iowans, farmers and city dwellers alike, about the vast array of organizations working to solve the problem of keeping nitrates escaping farm fields through tiling into Iowa’s streams, rivers and lakes.
Ultimately, Iowa is tasked with reducing at least 45 percent of nitrates and phosphorus that find its way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
The mandate was handed down by the Hypoxia Task Force, formed in 2008 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. All 31 states that drain into the Mississippi River Basin have target goals to reach.
Iowa was the first of the states to develop a comprehensive nutrient reduction strategy for both non-point pollution sources – generally farm fields – and point sources, such as urban wastewater treatment plants and concentrated animal confinements.
On the rural side of the issue, efforts to meet the goal are on a volunteer compliance basis.
Rural vs. urban
Surface water quality is a divisive issue.
On the one hand, are Iowa’s farmers who earn a living growing and raising row crops and livestock, which is a major economic engine that drives the state’s economy.
On the other hand are urban centers, such as Des Moines, which draws its drinking water from two Iowa rivers and complains about the spike of nitrates that flow downstream into its water treatment facilities.
The biggest urban finger of blame is pointed at the vast number of miles of farm ground tiling, designed to remove excessive moisture from soil. City residents also accuse farmers of applying too much nitrogen on fields, which ends up leaching away during heavy rain events.
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association, told an audience of about 30 that it would “be impossible to farm the way we do without tiling.”
He said Iowa is one of five states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana – that have large tracts of glacial till soils, loaded with natural nitrogen organic matter, about 10,000 pounds per acre.
They are also produce the bulk of the nation’s row crops and require tiling to do so, since soil profiles don’t drain easily.
These are said to be some of the most fertile soils in the world, he said, but to take advantage of the food-producing resource, these soils require tiling.
As for fertilizer applications, Wolf and Dr. John Lawrence, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University, said each Iowa acre in corn and soybean production lose an estimated 30 pounds of nitrogen annually.
This is significant, they said, because corn requires nitrogen applications and soybeans do not, yet both lose the same amount, primarily due to rainfall amounts.
Wolf presented a chart that showed in 1980, U.S. farmers applied 10.58 million tons of fertilizer to produce 6.6 billion bushels of corn. In 2014, they applied 11.06 million tons of fertilizer to produce 14.22 billion bushels of corn – a 105 percent increase in efficiency.
“So it’s not the way nitrogen is applied,” Lawrence said. “The loss is widespread, everybody loses it.”
On the other hand, Wolf explained that the Des Moines Water Works is tasked with creating safe drinking water from two rivers – Des Moines and Raccoon.
“Des Moines sits at the bottom of two rivers that drain central Iowa,” Wolf said, “which will lead to nitrate concentrations during heavy rain events, about 10 percent of the time.”
He described Des Moines’ treatment facility as a factory.
“They have to send out good drinking water. It’s the law,” Wolf said.
The answer, he said, is both sides must work together.
And the solutions are not easy or cheap.
Joseph Jones, senior vice president of government relations and public policy for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the 117 organizations that comprise the partnership developed a Regional Visionary Plan, which eventually led to the formation of the Iowa Soil and Water Future Task Force, to find a comprehensive way to make the NRS goals a reality.
The task force issued 10 “common ground” recommendations for hitting the NRS target.
The recommendations are:
1). Allocating sufficient, permanent and dedicated funding sources for detailed nutrient reduction implementation plans and practice. These can include the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, created in 2006; the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education fund, formerly known as the local option sales tax; tax credits and water quality trading.
2). Developing an implementation plan for the NRS.
3). Using Watershed Management Authorities to implement the NRS.
4). Growing an effective implementation infrastructure from outreach staff and technical advisors to watershed coordinators and construction teams.
5). Establishing an Iowa Soil and Water Health Revolving Loan Fund. This would leverage public funding with private-sector dollars by providing three-year, no-interest loans for testing, master planning and design of water quality improvement.
This would also provide sustainable, reliable and sufficient low-cost loan and other funding for WMAs once they have developed effective implementation plans.
6). Developing monitoring and measurement systems to allow for adaptive management strategies.
7). Ensuring watersheds of greatest need and watersheds ready-for-action receive resources.
8). Incorporating transparency into the implementation of the NRS.
9). Emphasizing practices with multiple, long-term and/or significant impacts.
10). Engaging the private sector to supplement public sector outreach and implementation including new innovations in precision agriculture and drainage water management.
Getting it done
Derick Anderson, water environment team leader for McClure Engineering Co., based in Fort Dodge, said Watershed Management Authorities have access to federal and state funding sources, making then ideally suited for channeling resources to where they are needed to meet the long-term NRS.
Lawrence said two types of funding are needed – one-time investments for installing devices, such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands; and annual costs, such as planting cover crops.
The complexity comes in understanding that few water quality practices will work uniformly in all watersheds, which have different soil types, farm operations and topography.
“It would be devastating to tell farmers they have to manage every acre the same,” Anderson said.
But the state can’t afford to drag its feet in meeting the INRS goals.
In May 2013, Karl Brooks, then the region 7 executive director of the EPA, told an audience at Iowa State University that the EPA did not set a deadline to reach the NRS goals, but it will be watching, and its patience is not unlimited.
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