Iowa Secretary of Agriculture rules out big changes to water quality strategy

The public comment period on Iowa's draft strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in waterways ended on January 18. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey indicated this week that policy-makers aren't open to key changes suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and advocates for cleaner water.

Ken Anderson interviewed Northey for Brownfield Ag News and posted the audio here on January 21. Northey said officials would like to finalize the nutrient reduction strategy in February. Whether or not they can meet that deadline, he said they are committed to getting a final document to state legislators while the Iowa House and Senate are in session. Governor Terry Branstad's draft budget calls for $2.4 million to fund the nutrient reduction efforts in fiscal year 2014 and another $4.4 million in fiscal year 2015. Lawmakers will need to review the strategy before that money can be appropriated. Northey told Anderson he would like to see some projects begin during this year's growing season.

Northey's ruling out any new requirements for farmers to reduce nutrient runoff, though. The Environmental Protection Agency's administrator for Region 7 found more significant problems with the "nonpoint source" part of the nutrient strategy (which is supposed to address agricultural runoff) than with the "point source" proposals for wastewater treatment facilities. While writing the nonpoint source section, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship staff included only voluntary measures for farms, with no numeric standards for nitrogen or phosphorous pollution. Staff in Northey's department ignored feedback from Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff before the nutrient strategy was released in November. The EPA has called on states to include numeric standards as part of any plan to reduce nutrients in water. So have many individuals and groups, including the Sierra Club Iowa chapter and Iowa Environmental Council, with which I am involved.

Anderson asked Northey about the EPA's comments on the nutrient strategy. Northey's answer begins around the 2:30 mark of this audio clip. He said officials were "very pleased" with the EPA's comments, which recognized Iowa's effort to take leadership on the issue, building this document around the science to encourage farmers to make a difference on water quality. Here's my partial transcript:

There certainly will be some of the things that they suggest that will get into the final report as well. There may be some things--they talk about [numeric] nutrient standards--some things that to us sometimes sound like a step toward regulation.

We're really not interested in going down the regulation route with this document. We believe we're at the beginning of an awful lot of stuff that can get done in a voluntary way.  So that's our focus-we're going to keep the integrity of the document around that voluntary effort. But there's a lot of good ideas that they had, and an opportunity for us to be able to get some work done.

Northey has a different concept of "integrity" than some people. The nutrient strategy includes new regulations already, in the form of mandatory standards for wastewater treatment facilities ("point sources"). Why does the strategy's "integrity" depend on only voluntary steps for farmers? If the goal is to reduce nutrients in waterways, new requirements for agriculture could be effective, based on what scientific research shows to be appropriate numeric standards for phosphorous and nitrogen.

Please share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

  • How many public comments did he receive?

    Apparently Northey plans to ignore any comments that might conflict with his pre-concieved support for voluntary compliance dictated by the Iowa Farm Bureau and corporate ag industry.

    • haven't seen a number

      I think it was in the hundreds. No idea what proportion favored the voluntary approach vs. criticized it. In that interview, Northey sounded entirely close-minded.  

  • Northey is deluding himself

    The ag side of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy offers nothing new, and there is no reason to believe that farmers are now suddenly going to voluntarily adopt water quality practices that will cost them money.  Northey has apparently just discovered water quality and thinks that a voluntary approach is innovative.  I have seen many turns of the voluntary-water-quality merry-go-round. This strategy is simply a way to buy another five years of business as usual.

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