IEC Analysis: The Slow Reality of the NRS

posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 in Water and Land News

NRS administrators claim voluntary program working but data analysis reveals different picture

Des Moines – An analysis of implementation rates of conservation practices identified in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) reveals that participation is stalling, despite optimistic messaging in the 2018 annual NRS progress report.

“NRS Annual Progress Reports have touted a story of success, when in fact the data show that the supposed progress is barely a drop in the bucket considering the scope of the problem,” says Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, Water Program Director with the Iowa Environmental Council. “In fact, an analysis of the state’s own measurements in the most recent progress reports demonstrate that, for at least one proposed scenario, it will take hundreds to thousands of years to achieve NRS targets.”

The NRS, which Iowa adopted in 2013, grew out of a stakeholder development process that originated in the multi-state Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, a coalition formed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1997 to address the growing ‘Dead Zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico. This Dead Zone has continued to grow despite efforts to address its causes. It is an area of water featuring little to no oxygen, caused by the growth of algae due to excess nutrients, which renders the water inhospitable to other aquatic life.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy seeks to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus contributions to Iowa’s waterways through a suite of conservation practices, including cover crops, wetlands, and bioreactors. It does not, however, include specific reduction target amounts or timelines to achieve such reduction.

The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force calls for a 45% reduction of nutrient pollution to the Gulf by 2035. Even though 92% of the total nitrogen and 80% of the total phosphorus in Iowa waterways originate from agricultural lands, participation by non-point source agricultural producers is voluntary.

The Iowa Environmental Council conducted an analysis of the voluntary implementation rates of conservation practices between 2013-2017, as reported in the two most recent Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Progress Reports.

The analysis reveals that participation in voluntary nutrient reduction practices is not nearly robust enough to address the scope of the problem. In fact, most practices have seen flat or significant declines in implementation rates.

Since 2013:

  • The increase in the rate of cover crop implementation has slowed drastically. At the current rate of implementation, it will be 2110 by the time the state reaches the NRS goal of 12.6 million acres of cover crops.
  • The rate of acres treated by wetlands was increasing prior to 2013 but dropped significantly and has slowed each year since NRS adoption. At the current rate of implementation, it will take 913 years to reach the NRS goal for acres treated by wetlands.
  • Bioreactor construction has remained flat since 2011. At the current rate of implementation, it will take more than 30,000 years to treat the number of acres set forth as a goal by the NRS.

Less than one million acres have been treated by the three practices in scenario one – just three percent of the 26.3 million acres of cropland in Iowa. At the same time, a recent study from the University of Iowa revealed that, despite adoption of the NRS in 2013, Iowa’s nitrogen load to the Gulf of Mexico has increased by nearly 50% since 2003.

NRS Analysis 2019

“Iowans have been waiting for more than five years to see nutrient reduction results. Meanwhile, recent NRS Progress Reports are frustratingly vague and lack context, while external studies and reports show nutrient pollution is getting worse,” says Gronstal Anderson.

One major factor in this slow rate of progress is that agricultural producers, despite being the largest contributors of nutrient pollution, have no requirements to participate in the NRS. Point sources, such as factories and wastewater treatment plants, must meet specific reduction targets and most have taken steps to address their contributions.

For the voluntary, nonpoint contributors, it appears that early adopters and conservation-minded producers have already opted to participate. Future implementation will only be more challenging without added incentives or requirements.

“The data show that momentum is slowing. It’s time to make a change,” says Gronstal Anderson. “IEC is calling on leaders to require mandatory participation for non-point sources within a flexible framework. We understand that every farm is different and landowners should be able to choose the practice most suitable for their needs, but everyone must be required to participate in solving our state’s nutrient pollution problem.”

“Those who call Iowa home – and those who make a living from the Gulf of Mexico – can’t afford to wait another generation, another 1,000 years, or another 30,000 years to see real progress from the NRS. Mandatory participation for all contributors must be enacted.”

Read the complete analysis. 


  1. harmful algal blooms
  2. healthy soil
  3. nitrate pollution
  4. nutrient reduction strategy
  5. phosphorus pollution
  6. water quality