As NRS turns 10, why aren't Iowa's waters safer and cleaner?

posted by Guest Blogger on Tuesday, January 31, 2023

We collaborated with several past IEC executive directors to draft a guest column on the status of Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy as it approaches it's 10th anniversary this spring. Linda Appelgate, Marian Riggs, and Ralph Rosenberg submitted the piece to the Des Moines Register, where it was published on January 29, 2023. We sincerely thank them for their time and insights.

Fertilizer pollution (composed of the chemical nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus) has plagued Iowa’s waterways since long before the Iowa Environmental Council was formed in 1995.

This pollution threatens Iowans’ health, harms animals and plant life in and near our waterways, severely limits swimming and boating in Iowa waters each summer, and forced a growing number of Iowa communities to struggle to provide safe drinking water for their customers.

Fertilizer pollution is associated with an increased risk of cancer and can cause methemoglobinemia (“blue baby syndrome”) in infants. It can also lead to algae blooms, which deplete oxygen in water when they grow and decay. In addition, our pollution hurts our friends and neighbors downstream. Each year, this cascade of pollution causes the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-deprived area of water that can’t support aquatic life.

In 1998, the EPA-led Gulf Hypoxia Task Force asked 12 states with the biggest impact on the Dead Zone — of which Iowa is the leading contributor — to write nutrient reduction strategies, or NRS, to reduce the fertilizer pollution each state sends to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa adopted its Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013, and the Iowa Legislature formalized it in law as the state’s official solution to addressing fertilizer pollution in 2018. The approach relies exclusively on voluntary measures to address fertilizer pollution even though there is no research to show that a voluntary approach works.

The Iowa Environmental Council called for a stronger plan while the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was being written: one that included goals, numeric limits and benchmarks as specific measures of success. That is, IEC called for an actual strategy that could be monitored, measured and improved over time.

We called for a plan that didn’t measure success by how many people attended a program while someone talked about what to do, but spent the dollars on actual, physical practices that would improve Iowa’s waters. We told DNR and all those involved with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy that Iowans needed action — not a “strategy” in name only, without transparent plans and meaningful “measures of success.”

This has been one consistent message through each of our tenures as executive directors with the council. Unfortunately, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has never measured up. The council applied Iowa values of accountability and transparency to arguing for these measures. The Legislature balked. The state of Iowa balked.

What can we say a decade later about progress on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy?

We can look at numbers from Iowa’s statewide water quality information system, which provides nitrate levels in real time — and those numbers are even higher now than when the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was adopted.

We can’t say much about overall water quality, since new data on the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has not been released since 2019. We can’t say that we’re anywhere near reaching the goal of reducing pollution by 45% by 2035. We can’t say that the size of the Dead Zone is shrinking.

The voluntary approach of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy hasn’t worked. The state agencies responsible for the strategy need to revisit, update and significantly improve it so that it will actually achieve cleaner water. Iowa’s leaders need to find the political will to take stronger measures and enforce compliance, so that Iowa farmers and landowners can be true "stewards of the land" and provide not just crops and livestock but also safe, clean water for all those who rely on it for life.

About the Authors

Linda Appelgate served as the Iowa Environmental Council’s executive director from 1995 to 2000, Marian Riggs served from 2007 to 2012, and Ralph Rosenberg served from 2012 to 2017.

  1. beach advisories
  2. clean water
  3. harmful algal blooms
  4. iowa legislature
  5. nitrate pollution
  6. nutrient reduction strategy
  7. phosphorus pollution
  8. water quality

About The Author

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