Despite a strategy for reduction, the NRS Annual Report shows nitrogen exports up
on Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Water and Land News
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and Iowa State University (ISU) published the 2018-2019 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS)Progress Report at the end of June. The report, published significantly later than previous years' reports, provides data on nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient levels in Iowa's waterways and implementation of nutrient reduction efforts. It aims to publicize the effectiveness of nutrient mitigation resulting from voluntary non-point source agricultural conservation tactics, in addition to point source requirements.
The Iowa NRS was adopted in 2013 following direction from the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. The Task Force was created in response to excess levels of nutrient pollution causing a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. As one of the top nutrient exporters in the Mississippi River basin, Iowa adopted the Task Force's goal of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus export reduction by 2035.
Despite efforts intended to increase conservation through the implementation of NRS programs in several states, the Dead Zone continues to grow. Increased agricultural runoff containing high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus travels from Midwestern states to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient pollution not only has an ecological impact by decreasing the oxygen supply for plants and aquatic life, leading to mass die-offs, but also affects economic prosperity and human health.
What is IEC's response?
IEC had the opportunity to comment on the NRS report draft in March of 2020. While two of IEC's suggestions were included in the final report, many were excluded.
After years of requests, the NRS report finally included nitrogen load export data on page 35. This information is crucial to understanding the effectiveness of the State's efforts to reduce nutrient export. In our March comments, IEC urged the NRS reporters to compare the nitrogen export data to the 1980-96 baseline. This comparison is necessary to assess progress toward the 45% nutrient reduction goal. NRS authors responded that the process to conduct an accurate comparison using emerging data sources is still being developed. However, the nitrogen export data was considered valid enough to be included in the report. We are asking that it simply be compared to the baseline data.
IEC suggested inclusion of a table such as this, which matches the format of Table 1 on page 9 of the final report:
The 2014-18 five-year average load was calculated from data on page 36. The non-point source (NPS) load was calculated by subtracting the 2017 point source (PS) load estimate (inferred from the graph on page 32) from the total average load.
This comparison shows that not only is Iowa failing to achieve a 45% reduction in nitrogen load with a 41% reduction coming from non-point sources, but it is moving alarmingly in the opposite direction with a 34.3% increase in nitrogen export.
Additionally, IEC expressed concern about the minimal change in farmer attitudes, stating that lack of results should result in prompt different implementation strategies. The annual report stated, there was relatively little change in attitudes across all watersheds (Table 3, pg. 14), which is disappointing given the amount of time and resources that have been dedicated to education and outreach.
Specifically, with minimal attitude change following several years of educational approaches, IEC believes that the barriers to adoption are not about a lack of knowledge and access to resources. In response, NRS authors stated that ISU and Iowa Nutrient Research Center researchers are aiming to better understand obstacles to conservation adoption. The NRS did not expand on what steps would be implemented to address the lack of attitude change.
The importance of the NRS report is ensuring the state's strategy adequately addresses nutrient pollution and provides solutions to minimize Iowa's contribution to the Gulf crisis. With abundant time and significant taxpayer money invested in cost-share programs, Iowans have the right to hold reasonable expectations for the effectiveness of the state's approach to nutrient reduction. So far, the state is not upholding its end of the bargain. IEC stands by its additional comments that were not addressed in the final report.
What does the report fail to show?
Overall, the NRS report fails to provide necessary context when introducing data. Comparing data to benchmark nitrogen and phosphorus levels in 1980-1996, reduction goals, and projected future loads is an important and necessary progress marker. Additionally, the report does not explain the impact of excess nitrogen and phosphorus loads on the environment and human health, or compare Iowa's nutrient export to other states.
IEC continues to express concern about the lack of regulations on agricultural non-point pollution sources, as 92% of total nitrogen and 80% of total phosphorus in Iowa waterways come from non-point sources. The current voluntary participation in conservation practice implementation by agricultural producers fails to address the unbalanced nitrate export load between non-point and point sources. Implementation rates of practices such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, bioreactors, and saturated buffers appear to remain far behind the pace of adoption necessary to achieve nutrient reduction goals in a reasonably timely manner.
Why should Iowans care?
As residents and taxpayers in this state, it is important for us to ensure that progress toward statewide water quality goals is being accurately portrayed in a manner that can be easily interpreted and understood by the public, especially where public resources and public health are involved. As a top nutrient exporter and contributor to the Gulf Dead Zone, it is important for Iowa to confront the issue of nutrient pollution at its primary source: agricultural production.
Iowans taxpayer dollars are spent researching and cleaning up nutrient pollution that the majority of residents do not produce. Additionally, Iowans cannot fully take advantage of what should be abundant outdoor recreation opportunities in Iowa water bodies because of this pollution.
IEC continues to advocate for mandatory basic standards of care on agricultural lands, data that Iowans can comprehend because it is properly contextualized, and a more concise analysis of the effectiveness of current conservation practices. IEC envisions a future with universal nutrient reduction efforts to achieve clean water for all Iowans and our neighbors downstream.
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