New IEC report makes recommendations to improve water quality monitoring in Iowa

posted on Thursday, July 21, 2022 in Water and Land News

IEC Recommends Water Quality Monitoring Adjustments to Demonstrate Impacts of WQI Spending

Increased coordination and additional data points are necessary to deliver on water quality goals 

DES MOINES, IA - July 21, 2022 - The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) published a report today outlining the nearly $100 million in public tax dollars allocated by Iowa legislators since 2013 for water quality improvements for Iowa. Yet the projects receiving funding are not appropriately monitored for outcomes or improvements in the water they are designed to treat.  

In 2018, the Iowa Legislature, with support from Governor Kim Reynolds, passed Senate File 512, which allocated more than $270 million over 10 years through the Water Quality Initiative (WQI) to help fund the state's implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). During the 2021 legislative session, legislators passed a 10-year extension, making an additional $320 million of funding available through 2039 to help implement water quality practices including wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and urban conservation projects. 

NRS authors recognized in the initial plan and subsequent reports the importance of additional monitoring to ensure appropriate assessment of the state’s goals for water quality. One such recommendation was increasing the state’s monitoring efforts beyond the Iowa Department of Natural Resources existing stream monitoring program.

"Despite those recommendations, the state has failed to adopt a standard approach or strategy for water monitoring for WQI projects to establish baselines and track effectiveness of the projects or progress toward NRS goals,” says Alicia Vasto, Water Program Associate Director of the Iowa Environmental Council. “As a result, data are not publicly available for many projects and state agencies lack data to assess water quality effects of the individual practices they fund." 

Iowa State University has reported changes in water quality using two methods: estimating annual nitrogen export from measured water quality data and modeling nutrient reductions based on conservation practice implementation. A technical work group is still developing the method to estimate annual phosphorus export. 

"The 2018-19 annual progress report provided the first nitrogen export estimates, which were based on a model of the ambient water monitoring data. If the state implemented continuous in-stream nitrate sensors, it would not have to estimate load using a model," says Vasto. Using in-stream sensors and stream flow measurements, nutrient loads could be measured directly instead of estimated. 

An additional challenge to gaining insights of project impacts is the scale of monitoring. The state is not broadly monitoring on a scale small enough that the current level of practice implementation could be detected. The Nutrient Water-Quality Monitoring Framework developed for the NRS concluded that nutrient reductions from edge-of-field practices and in small watersheds can be measured in less than 10 years. However, measuring such a change would require baseline data that was collected at the start of the strategy’s implementation in 2013. 

The Iowa Environmental Council is calling on state leaders and those involved with implementing and reporting on the NRS to improve monitoring and make data publicly available. "Water monitoring is a crucial component to the success of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and must be designed to assess progress. A strategy without a way to evaluate progress or outcomes is not a real strategy," says Ingrid Gronstal, Water Program Director with the Iowa Environmental Council.  

In the report, IEC recommends state agencies responsible for implementing and reporting on WQI and the NRS: 

  1. Collaborate to implement a water monitoring framework to evaluate effects of water quality improvement projects funded through the Water Quality Initiative. 
  2. Groups collect data at various scales and collect baseline data now to identify changes over time. 
  3. Make results of WQI water quality monitoring available to the public and report to the state legislature annually. 
  4. Use water quality monitoring data to evaluate progress on the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. If data show lack of progress, the strategy must be reevaluated and updated to make it effective. 

Implementing common sense, realistic changes in water quality monitoring are the minimum expectation of the residents of Iowa, whose drinking and recreational waters are impacted by these pollutants, and who bear the burden of the costs associated with these projects. "It is irresponsible and unjust to continue spending taxpayer dollars without assessing the outcomes," says Vasto.  


  1. clean water
  2. nutrient reduction strategy
  3. water quality