NRS is not 'makin' progress' on the Raccoon River

posted on Thursday, April 22, 2021 in Water and Land News

April 22, 2021 - Des Moines, IA - Last week, Iowa’s Raccoon River landed at #9 on America’s Most Endangered Rivers list for 2021. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig dismissed the alarm of many Iowans, calling the list “propaganda” and saying the report was ‘not rooted in fact.’ Secretary Naig said the “so-called” report was just a fundraising tool for environmental non-profits.  

IEC challenges Secretary Naig’s assertion, asking the question: propaganda for whom?  

Who really benefits from such "propaganda?" Aquatic life in the river and downstream? Those who fish in the river to supplement their diet? Gardeners who use the water to sustain their vegetable patch? Those who paddle or swim in its waters? The hundreds of thousands of Iowans who rely on the river’s water to cook their meals, mix their infant’s bottle, or fill their glasses at the dinner table?  

The Raccoon River’s three tributary branches snake through 10 counties before combining and joining with the Des Moines River, itself a tributary to the Mississippi. Land in those counties houses hundreds of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and millions of acres of crop production, the primary sources of nitrate, bacteria, and other pollution. The river is also a main source of drinking water for many communities in the watershed. Of the 500,000 consumers in central Iowa, dozens are rural communities that rely on the river for drinking water, including Xenia Rural Water and Warren Rural Water.   

“I grew up in Carroll, along the banks of the Middle Raccoon. This is a river, and a population of Iowans, under siege. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which Secretary Naig and other ag leaders claim will ‘solve’ the problems of this river and the many others in Iowa, has no actual nitrogen pollution reductions to show to date. It is the “progress” of the NRS that is not based in fact,” says Ingrid Gronstal, Water Program Director with the Iowa Environmental Council.  

IDALS and other leaders continuously point to a relatively small number of conservation practices implemented over eight years as progress, while the actual amount of nitrate in the water – one of the main goals of this project – has doubled since 2000. 

Iowans and IEC understand that the initiatives in the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, take time to effect change, but after eight years this voluntary approach has yielded no measurable improvement in the water quality of the Raccoon River. Financial incentives don’t appear to be motivators for significant change, as $2 million for conservation project funding in the North Raccoon River Watershed remained unclaimed 2020, despite a 90% cost-share offer. That cost-share means landowners would only need to pay 10% of the costs to implement conservation practices.   

Here are facts, based on measurable data, to support the inclusion of the Raccoon River listing: 

  • According to public data from Des Moines Water Works, since 1974 the monthly average nitrate concentration in the Raccoon River increased from 5 mg/L to 7.5 mg/L. The Safe Drinking Water Act standard is 10 mg/L and recent research connects health impacts at just 5 mg/L.  
  • The Raccoon River has exceeded 10 mg/L nitrate approximately 90 days per year since 2012.3  
  • The five-year running average nitrate load entering the Upper Mississippi Watershed from Iowa is up 72% since 2003.   
  • The watershed is expected to absorb the urine and feces of more than 11.7 million animals.  
  • More than 750+ CAFOs are located in the Raccoon River watershed.  

“We were not at all surprised to see the Raccoon River included on this list,” says Alicia Vasto with IEC. “Data make it clear that those living and making their livelihoods in that watershed are right to be concerned about the health of this important waterway and call for more action from Secretary Naig and other leaders to protect public health and recreation for Iowans.”  

IEC is advocating for improved state policy to drive land use change and curb nutrients  through mandatory practices for non-point sources of pollution and implementing basic standards of care. If state policymakers will not do it, it is time for federal agencies to step in. 

“We need benchmarks, timelines, and a proper balance between private and public interests,” says Gronstal. “One-sixth of all Iowans get their drinking water from the Raccoon River. Iowans in communities and farms spanning hundreds of miles live, work, and play along this river. If the state is serious about addressing water quality, our leaders need to stop saying we’re heading in the right direction and start to deliver real  pollution reduction results.” 


  1. cafos
  2. clean water
  3. drinking water
  4. nitrate pollution
  5. nutrient reduction strategy
  6. public health
  7. sustainable agriculture
  8. water quality