Two views of Iowa's strategy on key water pollution problem

Last week the Iowa Department of Natural Resources extended the public comment period on the state's proposed strategy "to assess and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and the Gulf of Mexico." Nutrients have become "Iowa's most widespread water pollution problem" and are the primary cause of the gulf's "dead zone." The Environmental Working Group's recent report on "Murky Waters" explains the causes of Iowa's chronically poor water quality.

Interest groups aligned with corporate agriculture had extensive input while the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship drafted its part of the nutrient reduction strategy, even shutting out the Iowa DNR's experts on agricultural runoff. For more background on the proposed state policy, which relies on voluntary efforts to curb pollution from farms, click here or here.

Iowans have until January 18 to comment on the nutrient strategy. Many groups and individuals have already submitted their feedback. After the jump I've posted comments from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter. The contrast is striking.  

Comments submitted by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation posted these comments here. Wallace Taylor of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter pointed out that the second sentence is false: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made clear that it expects states to adopt numeric criteria in this area. From a March 2011 memo memo by EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner:

It has long been EPA's position that numeric nutrient criteria targeted at different categories of water bodies and informed by scientific understanding of the relationship between nutrient loadings and water quality impairment are ultimately necessary for effective state programs. Our support for numeric standards has been expressed on several occasions, including a June 1998 National Strategy for Development of Regional Nutrient Criteria, a November 2001 national action plan for the development and establishment ofnumeric nutrient criteria, and a May 2007 memo from the Assistant Administrator for Water calling for accelerated progress towards the development o f numeric nutrient water quality standards. As explained in that memo, numeric standards will facilitate more effective program implementation and are more efficient than site-specific application of narrative water quality standards. We believe that a substantial body of scientific data, augmented by state-specific water quality information, can be brought to bear to develop such criteria in a technically sound and cost-effective manner.

January 4, 2013

The Honorable Bill Northey

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture

Nutrient Reduction Strategy

ANR Program Services

2101 Agronomy Hall

Ames, Iowa 50011-1010

RE: Iowa Draft Nutrient Reduction Strategy Comments

Dear Secretary Northey:

EPA has asked states to establish a strategy to reduce nutrients in surface water. This is because EPA has recognized that restrictive, unachievable numeric water quality standards is not an effective option for further nonpoint and point source reductions.  The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest general farm organization with more than 153,000 members, agrees with the EPA that a state strategy is best near-term and long-term option. The IFBF supports the draft Iowa Nutrient Strategy and will work with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and other agencies to help implement it by prioritizing resources and programs for effectiveness, and communicating to our members and the public about the strategy so that it can be successful.

The numeric water quality standard approach that results in labeling people, farmers and businesses as "polluters" has real financial consequences.  The current science behind developing more restrictive numeric water quality standards for nutrients in surface water is flawed, and the ability to adjust them as new science is developed is limited. Iowa shouldn't set arbitrary numbers to address nutrients. Arbitrary numeric standards only lead to more Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) or restrictive watershed plans that limit economic growth of businesses and communities, like in the Chesapeake Bay, resulting in more pressure on Congress to regulate agriculture through the Clean Water Act, and the opportunity for more activist lawsuits.  These regulatory approaches have not been effective at reducing nutrient impairments, but have merely redefined the definition of pollution and labeled partners as "polluters."

That's why a different approach, as described in the draft Iowa Nutrient Strategy, is necessary to address nonpoint sources, including farms.  EPA, as evidenced in its 2011 "Stoner memo," allowed for this new path forward, and specifically for state-federal partnerships to address nutrients as an alternative approach.  These targeted, focused voluntary water quality efforts have been successful in Iowa when they have been tried.  We believe these successes should be duplicated using the tools we know will work, such as strategically targeted conservation measures.  While the state has supported these efforts to some degree, the state has not put its full efforts in a comprehensive way behind this approach to maximize progress.

IDALS and DNR have now put its full support behind this realistic approach - the Iowa Nutrient Strategy - that will prioritize the top watersheds and focus resources to make improvements in cooperation with landowners, long before numeric standards are necessary.  Iowa State University has developed a comprehensive, peer-reviewed science and technical assessment of the best management practices available to reduce nutrients, their effectiveness and implementation cost. Because IDALS has experience in working with farmers and using their knowledge to gain trust, IDALS is taking the lead in establishing and implementing the nutrient strategy with nonpoint sources. The DNR is working with the point sources to determine the cities and industries that will use new, effective biological nutrient removal treatment processes.

The IFBF supports the strategy and the process used to develop it. It was refreshing to see point sources and nonpoint sources working together with the state agencies to develop it. We appreciate the leadership provided by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp in developing this strategy.

Since the EPA did not dictate how to move forward with the strategy development process, the state reviewed what worked and what didn't for other states. Clearly, states that had too many advocacy groups at the table right in the beginning became mired down in politics and reached a stalemate without any progress or pathway forward to show for their efforts.  It is unfortunate that some groups, after calling on agriculture to do more, have already made a decision to support the scientifically-challenged numeric criteria approach. The negative, regulatory rhetoric expressed regarding the draft strategy is unfortunate, but not unexpected. It should, however, be rejected by the State of Iowa in establishing its policy on this issue.  The Clean Water Act does not provide the government with regulatory authority over agricultural stormwater for good reason.  Nonpoint source issues, which are heavily influenced by variable weather conditions, are not best resolved with mandating a specific practice on every acre.  The science assessment demonstrates this would be a huge waste of financial resources.  Rather an adaptive management approach that encourages innovation for new methods of addressing problems is what Iowans do best.

The Iowa strategy outlines how the state will make real, additional, meaningful progress with better coordination and synchronization of our current state and federal conservation programs. This is the first 'real-world' comprehensive state assessment that will lead to prioritized watersheds and the best use of our limited state and federal resources. The scientific assessment by Iowa State University reinforces that conservation is not a 'one-size fits all' approach. To be the effective, and to avoid a Chesapeake Bay situation in Iowa and the Midwest, conservation choices should suit the soil, terrain, crops and the demands for food, energy and fiber. What works on one farm in Northwest Iowa may not be as effective (and could cost more) on a farm in Southeast Iowa, for example. Understanding the differences in conservation methods will help save the state and Iowans money, but most importantly, increase the likelihood of success.

Right now, farmers are using their own funds to match with limited cost-share dollars for conservation. The demand for these funds exceeded funds available by more than $100 million last year, proof that farmers are willing to do more.  But those additional actions need to be guided by this comprehensive nutrient strategy to be as effective as possible.  

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. The IFBF looks forward to working with the Water Resources Coordinating Council, state and federal conservation partners, and other organizations to further develop this dynamic strategy into more detailed implementation plans as new scientific information comes forward in the future.


Craig Hill


Comments submitted by the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter

Passages in bold were emphasized in the original document. A pdf version of this file is available here.

December 31, 2012

Nutrient Reduction Strategy

ANR Program Services

2101 Agronomy Hall

Iowa State University

Ames, Iowa 50011-1010

To Whom It May Concern:

The following comments on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy are submitted on behalf of the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is the nation's largest grassroots environmental organization with over 600,000 members. Its Iowa Chapter has approximately 5,000 members.

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club has worked for many years to improve Iowa's water quality. Those efforts include petitions to bring Iowa's water quality standards into compliance with the Clean Water Act, litigation to require the establishment of TMDLs and an appropriate 303(d) list, and a petition to withdraw Iowa's authority to administer the Clean Water Act because of Iowa DNR's failure to enforce the Act against animal feeding operations. We have advocated for strong water quality rules from the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission. We have participated in stakeholder meetings regarding antidegradation rules and the Iowa Nonpoint Source Management Plan. Thus, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is important to the organization and to our members.


We have grave concerns about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is based on the false premise that Iowa is making significant progress in reducing water pollution from nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and that no real changes need to be made in what thus far has been a voluntary and ineffective approach to nonpoint sources of pollution. Almost 90% of the Nutrient Strategy document is the scientific and technical assessment of various practices that would reduce the amount of N and P polluting Iowa's waters. We have no significant criticism of the scientific and technical assessment, although we do have some comments set out later herein. The problem is that the other 10% or so of the document does not present a thoroughly considered and effective strategy for addressing the problem of nonpoint source pollution. There is a good approach offered for point source pollution, and we are not addressing that aspect of the Nutrient Strategy, with one exception - animal feeding operations. That issue will be discussed later in these comments.

To begin, we generally agree with the comments of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources based on its review of the Nutrient Strategy. We especially refer to the initial November 1, 2012, comments and the letter from Allen Bonini, both of which are hereto attached. The November 6 DNR comments, also attached, were more muted but still raised critical issues with the Nutrient Strategy. In addition to the DNR comments, our comments follow.

Section 1.1 of the Strategy refers to the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan. As noted in the Strategy the Hypoxia Action Plan targets at least a 45% reduction in total nitrogen and phosphorus load. But the Strategy does not establish how Iowa can or will reach that goal.

The Strategy then describes the Stoner memo as emphasizing implementation of existing nutrient reduction practices and technologies. In fact, the memo does just the opposite. It highlights the failure of current practices to stem the flow of pollutants into our waters. Further, the memo emphasizes that states need to do better and to innovate in order to improve water quality. This is only the first of many examples I will describe in these comments where the Strategy falsely asserts that what Iowa has been doing in the past is what we should continue to do.

In Section 1.2 of the Strategy it is inferred that the problem of nutrients in rivers and streams can originate from the landscape or within the stream itself. But such background levels of nutrients obviously do not contribute to the problem in the Gulf of Mexico or to the excess nutrients in Iowa's waters. This is an attempt by the authors of the Strategy to minimize the contribution of agricultural practices to the nutrient problem. In fact, it is well-documented that the overwhelming majority of the nutrients come from agriculture. See, e.g., David, Drinkwater and McIsaac, Sources of Nitrate Yields in the Mississippi River Basin, 39 J. Eviron. Qual. 1657 (2010). It is also significant that the suggested solutions in the science section of the Strategy for nonpoint pollution center exclusively on agricultural practices.

Section 1.2 next discusses numeric nutrient criteria. The Strategy contends that, based on an article by USGS employees, 52% of stream segments would have background levels of phosphorus exceeding EPA recommended numeric criteria. Smith, Alexander and Schwarz, Natural Background Concentrations of Nutrients in Streams and Rivers of the Conterminous United States, 37 Environmental Science and Technology 3039 (2003). So what about nitrogen? The cited article concludes that total nitrogen concentrations in U.S. streams and rivers currently exceed natural background levels by a much larger factor (6.4) than do total phosphorus concentrations (2.0). The other takeaway from this article is the unpredictability and variability of background concentrations of nutrients. As stated in the article:

The results of this study, however, indicate that as much as an order of magnitude of variation in the natural background concentration of TN [total nitrogen] and TP [total phosphorus] exists within the boundaries of many of the EPA nutrient ecoregions. Indeed, large variation in background levels appears to occur over short distances in many regions due to elevation-related variation in runoff and differences in cumulative in-stream nutrient loss at the junctions of small tributaries and large rivers. As a result, predicted background TP concentrations in many stream and river segments exceed the EPA-proposed criteria for their region based on lower-quartile values (an estimated 52% of reaches nationwide). Such localized variation in background concentrations argues against the use of arbitrary quantiles (e.g., lower quartiles) of concentration distributions for large regions as a basis for setting water quality criteria.  

Thus, the point of the article is that the variability of background concentrations of nutrients should be considered in developing numeric criteria, not that numeric criteria should not be developed, as implied in the Strategy.

It must also be noted that several states have already adopted numeric criteria for nutrients. A map from the EPA web page showing those states is attached. If those states can establish numeric criteria, so can Iowa. The whining in the Strategy about numeric criteria simply shows the bias and continuing misrepresentation of the facts by the authors of the Strategy.

Farther along in Section 1.2 the statement is made that "many say a regulatory approach on nonpoint sources is not likely to achieve aggressive water quality outcomes." This statement begs several questions. Who are the "many?" On what factual basis to the "many" allegedly base their opinion that a regulatory approach will not be successful? What are the parameters of a regulatory approach that is being referred to so we have an understanding of what is allegedly being evaluated? This is yet another example of the Strategy's bias and misrepresentation of facts.

Section 1.3 of the Strategy purports to describe the "regulatory and administrative framework" regarding nutrient reduction. The general tone of this section is a propaganda piece designed to support voluntary measures alleged to control nutrients and to demonize environmental advocates who are working to protect our water resources. Such an approach has no place in what is supposed to be a government policy document.

Section 1.3 then sets out what it alleges are the roles and responsibilities of the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC). As noted by the DNR staff in its November 1, 2012, comments hereto attached, the WRCC in its four-year existence has done essentially nothing. Why are we to believe it will do anything in the future, especially when the Strategy does not set out any clear direction or guidelines for the WRCC? Allen Bonini, in his letter hereto attached, put it correctly, that the Strategy simply says, in effect, "the WRCC will figure it all out later."

It is also important to understand who is on the WRCC. Of the 19 people on the WRCC the only ones who could even advisedly be considered to care about water quality or the environment are David Osterberg and Karl Brooks. Mr. Osterberg, according to an article in the Des Moines Register has expressed his frustration with the WRCC and his objections to the Strategy. Mr. Brooks is the Administrator of EPA Region 7. Two against 19 are not very good odds for the environment.

Next, Section 1.3 discusses federal farm bill contributions. But what is omitted in that discussion is how the subsidies and other provisions of the farm bill could be used to ensure that good conservation practices are implemented by crop and livestock producers. Those benefits in the farm bill could be withheld unless good conservation practices are used. That would be a meaningful incentive for producers to do the right thing.

Finally, Section 1.3 purports to list a number of examples of alleged progress in Iowa in controlling nutrients. The DNR staff comments in the November 1, 2012, document make all the appropriate criticisms of this portion of the Strategy. Those criticisms appear on pages 25-28 of the DNR document. One has to ask, if we have made so much progress, why does the runoff of nutrients into our water and into the Gulf of Mexico dead zone continue unabated. The portion of the Strategy as another example of biased propaganda designed to justify continuing business as usual.

Section 1.4 of the Strategy is optimistically headed "Nutrient Reduction Strategy." It purports to explain how Iowa will implement the EPA framework for managing nutrients referred to in the Stoner memo.

The first item is prioritization of watersheds. The Strategy does not say how watersheds will be prioritized, what parameters or criteria will be used to determine the prioritization, or how watersheds in which nutrient reduction actions are already underway will fit into the prioritization. Again, the answer to all of this seems to be "the WRCC will figure it all out later."

The next item is determining watershed goals. The Strategy, however, does not establish any clear measurable goals. In fact, it can reasonably be said that this portion of the Strategy says nothing. With all of the time, effort and expertise allegedly expended in preparing the Strategy, it is inconceivable that clear, definite and measurable goals could not have been established.  

The third point in the EPA framework referred to in the Strategy is ensuring the effectiveness of point source permits. One of the point sources mentioned is animal feeding operations (AFOs). AFOs have been an elusive target for regulation as point sources. That is because they do not discharge on a regular basis and the livestock industry has created the myth that AFOs do not discharge pollutants. Of course, the numerous reported and confirmed discharges from AFOs into Iowa waters, many resulting in fish kills, belie that myth. In response to a petition to withdraw Iowa's authority under the Clean Water Act filed by the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Environmental Integrity Project, EPA has now required the Iowa DNR to take specific actions to bring its enforcement efforts against AFOs into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Although the foregoing action by the EPA is a separate process from this Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the Strategy should incorporate DNR enforcement of the Clean Water Act against AFOs as part of the Strategy. As it is now written, the Strategy does not propose any action involving AFOs.

Also under the discussion of point sources is a reference to water quality trading. While pollution trading has had some positive results with respect to air pollution, it is difficult to see how this concept would work with respect to water pollution. Air is ambient and it makes sense that reductions in one area would decrease the pollution in another area. Water resources, however, are more defined in terms of location, sources of pollution, and in our ability to regulate that pollution. The Strategy should abandon any consideration of water quality trading and focus instead on effective regulation of the sources of water pollution.

The next item in the EPA framework is agricultural areas. The Strategy says "Where appropriate, the science assessment and outcomes of the science assessment will be integrated into the operational plans." (emphasis added). When would the science not be appropriate? Secretary Northey and DNR Director Gipp, and the crop and livestock producers and the Farm Bureau, have all been blustering that this Strategy is based on science.

The following two pages of bullet points under the topic of agricultural areas essentially say nothing. They certainly do not contain any meaningful solutions to the problem of nutrient pollution from agricultural practices. The scientific and technical portions of the Strategy describe a number of practical and apparently effective actions that would reduce nutrient pollution. Why are those solutions not evaluated and recommended in responding to the EPA framework?

The next item is storm water, septic systems, and minor POTWs. We have no comments on this item other than to join in the comments of the Iowa DNR in its November 1 comments.

The next two items are accountability and verification and public reporting. Again, the discussion of these items is vague, with no clear description of what will be done, or how, or any specific guidelines. This is another example of whatever time and effort was spent in creating the Strategy being wasted.

The final item is a work plan for development of numeric criteria. It is difficult to see how this portion of the Strategy is really a serious attempt to comply with the Stoner memo when so much effort was spent earlier in the strategy criticizing numeric criteria.

Regarding the science assessment in the Strategy, we generally agree with the comments of the Iowa DNR in its November 1 document. We would note in addition that when the science assessment attempts to conduct a cost/benefit analysis, it only looks at direct costs to the entity undertaking nutrient reduction measures. There is no attempt to factor in the benefits of nutrient reduction nor the costs of not taking adequate measures to reduce nutrient pollution. These factors should be considered.


Having commented on the specific provisions of the Strategy, we want to take this opportunity to make some additional observations. Because the proposed Strategy is actually no strategy at all, we need to look at a strategy that might actually address the problem of nutrient pollution.

We propose establishment of watershed-based TMDLs (called Water Quality Improvement Plans (WQIP) in Iowa) for nutrients. A template for this proposal is the WQIP for the Raccoon River watershed. Watershed Improvement Plans are also the basis for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The Iowa WQIPs would need to have specific load allocations and wasteload allocations and there would have to be effective mechanisms for enforcing those allocations.

It should be clear that water pollution from nutrients is a serious problem, that Iowa has not done enough to abate the problem, and that EPA is serious about solving the problem. It is discouraging, to say the least, that after two years of working on this Strategy, this is the disappointing result. The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club also wants to make it clear that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as proposed does not address that problem, and if Iowa does not take meaningful action to reduce nutrients, we will ask the EPA to withdraw Iowa's authority under the Clean Water Act.  

Thank you for considering these comments. We look forward to seeing an entirely new Strategy and an effective approach to reducing nutrient pollution.

                             Very truly yours,

                             Wallace L. Taylor

                             Legal Chair

                             Sierra Club Iowa Chapter

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