Cleaning up Iowa’s waterways

One of the ways we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Among the ongoing legislative concerns of the Iowa Catholic Conference is enforcement of present environmental laws and adequate state funding for this purpose.

Through its “Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” the State of Iowa is trying to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients in fertilizer) that gets into the waterways. What Iowa sends downstream helps create the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s about the size of Connecticut this year. The overall goal is to reduce the dead zone by 45 percent. Nutrients that lead to algae growth (that use up all the oxygen) are the main culprit.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is part of a 12-state plan to protect water quality and decrease the levels of nutrients from rural and urban sources that contribute to environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa is one of the first states to complete a comprehensive proposal as part of the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan, designed to address both point sources of nutrients, commonly water treatment plants and industry, and nonpoint sources, generally rural areas related to crop and livestock production.

Funding levels for Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy continues to be a subject of discussion. One policy option that has been suggested was encouraging additional funding of the water quality efforts. Current state funding of about $4.4 million is too low by an order of magnitude as a total implementation cost, including projects addressing point sources, and cost-sharing with owners of non-point sources, would be well over a billion dollars.

A major focus of the water quality component of the plan is the environmental phenomenon called hypoxia, a condition of the overgrowth of nutrients that are released into waterways and travel downstream. The nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, which comprise the “nutrient load,” collect in bodies of water and diminish their capacity to sustain marine life, creating areas called dead zones. The zones are most common in areas that collect the nutrients that drain from point and nonpoint sources upstream. The 2008 plan is designed specifically to address the nutrient load that is transported via state waterways to the Mississippi River and south to the gulf, contributing to the current environmental threat to both the gulf and the fragile land areas that border it.

The Iowa strategy follows the recommended framework provided by the EPA in 2011 and enlists a number of institutions and agencies in the statewide effort to work toward the goals set by the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan. Iowa State University, Iowa Department of Agriculture, DNR, USDA Agricultural Research Service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and many others have been engaged to study and implement the practices that have been proven to reduce nutrients from point and nonpoint sources. The recommended goal is a nitrogen-load reduction from point and nonpoint sources of 4 percent and 41 percent, respectively, and phosphorous-load reduction of 16 percent and 29 percent, for combined totals of 45 percent for each nutrient.

This ambitious program will require years of research and coordination across the public and private sectors, utilizing science and technology and establishing best practices for water treatment management, conservation and agricultural land use. For details of the comprehensive plan, go to www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu for more information.

A website for “clean water” efforts is www.cleanwateriowa.org.