Iowa can learn from other states on nutrient-driven water pollution

John Norwood is a candidate for Polk County Soil and Water Commission. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Nutrient leaching from land use activities is a national issue. Solutions require systems thinking and robust financial support.

In some surprising news this week, Ohio Governor John Kasich, a former Republican presidential candidate with three months remaining in his term, fired his state’s Agricultural Director David Daniels over his slow response to Lake Erie algae. The algae are feeding on nutrients from fertilizers that drain into the lake and fuel these blooms. [Note to readers: In the State of Ohio like many others, the Governor appoints the state’s Agriculture Director.]

Ohio is not alone in having to deal with a highly contentious nutrient pollution issue. Florida has a red tide epidemic that has spread from the Gulf Coast and is now moving its way up the Atlantic coast, which is unusual from past outbreaks. The red tide produces a neurotoxin-producing algae that can adversely impact the health of animals and humans which are exposed to the toxins. This rusty-brown ooze is also sustained and propagated by local and manmade pollution.

Agriculture and tourism are both major drivers of the Florida economy, and this issue has found its way into the race for governor. Florida depends on a robust agricultural base but who wants to swim or even walk along a beach with red tide?


These two episodes bring me back to Iowa where we have our own systemic problems with nutrient leakage from one of the world’s most productive agricultural systems. As some of you undoubtedly know, we farm 23 million acres to corn and beans. More than most nations of the world! Even a small percentage of “leakage” from these highly productive systems, as measured in parts per million in a liter of river water, can result in heavy loading, millions of pounds of nutrients being conveyed from tiling to drainage ditches and into our rivers, and ultimately to the gulf when you do the math of all that water moving downstream.

And yes, our cities and urban areas contribute to the loading but consider the amount of commercial fertilizer we purchase and distribute across this state (along with the animal manure we spread to help meet crop requirements) to begin to understand where much of the nitrate is coming from even if the loss is unintended and unwanted.


In my home state of Massachusetts, I was part of the early effort to clean up our highly polluted Boston Harbor, which by the 1980s was considered to be among the dirtiest in the country. Even crew teams rowing on the Charles River were required to have tetanus shots. Stormwater overflows and daily discharges of poorly treated municipal sewage from 43 member communities on the outgoing tides from two early 20th century plants, made Boston the laughing stock of the 1988 presidential campaign between Mike Dukakis and George H.W. Bush. Or Bush “The Father” as one of my Boston friends likes to say.

Bush famously toured Boston Harbor in a boat, and chastised Dukakis for his poor environmental record. Our BayState reputation for dirty water even at that time was not new. A few of you reading this may remember the Standells, wrote the classic song, “Dirty Water”, mocking the City’s famed Charles River, back in the 1960s. “Love that Dirty Water, Boston you’re my home!”

Our polluted harbor and our polluted rivers around the Boston area (most considered unsafe to fish or swim) was a problem a hundred years in the making. No politician wanted to be the one that told ratepayers that they would have to help foot the bill for necessary improvements, even when the federal government was offering to pay for 90 percent of the new investment! Instead, it took a federal judge, Arthur Garrity, to put a gun to the politicians head when he denied the city’s request from a waver of the Clean Water Act. His decision forced the creation of a new Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) with rate making powers and the ability to issue billions in revenue bonds with backing by the state. At one time, the MWRA was a leading issuer of municipal debt.

Today, thirty years after the creation of the MWRA and billions of dollars of investment in new state-of-the-art treatment systems, and millions more in separating storm and sanitary sewers and building underground storage, Boston Harbor and its historic islands, part of a National Monument, are a proud, success story and end to a sad chapter in Boston’s history.


I believe we are facing a similar challenge here in Iowa when it comes to cleaning up our state’s waters and holding our rich agricultural soils in place. In our case, there is no state or federal court forcing the change. Instead, the job requires local and state leadership with federal support. The job will be not easy, nor will it be accomplished in the next few years. This is likely, as was the Boston situation, a 20 to 30 year effort to modernize our agricultural “plumbing” and build a variety of conservation infrastructure, particularly wetland treatment systems, that can filter nitrogen leaching from 12 million acres of corn and bean ground that is heavily tiled, and in some cases controlled by drainage districts. We need to think of these drainage districts as multifaceted water management districts. Drainage being just one function. Other functions include water treatment, flood storage, even potentially irrigation.


How much money will be needed? Some simple math can deliver a rough order magnitude answer. We have 1,300 priority wetland sites identified across the state and each can filter water from 2,000 to 4,000 acres of tiled ground. Assuming we can build 100 of these systems per year it would take us about 13 years to accomplish this first phase of infrastructure. It is estimated we will need upwards of 6,000 wetland sites, but let’s start with the priority sites.


At $250,000 average cost per site, we can build 100 per year for about $25 million. At present, our legislature is providing just a fraction of this amount. This needs to change. We have various potential sources of funding including fees we already collect on the production and distribution of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer at the state level. Along with the filtering benefits, this wetland infrastructure will serve additional functions including recreation for birders and boaters, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and hunting ground for outdoorsman.


Meanwhile, soil erosion (unlike our water quality infrastructure solution) is more a function of a change of mindset in terms of how we maintain and build soil health. This includes low impact farming techniques like no till farming and the use of cover crops to reduce surface erosion, and build something called soil tilth. Tilth refers to the structure and complexity of the soil, and the better the tilth the better the soil and its ability to absorb and retain moisture in part because there is biologic activity happening in the soil.


Who would have thought soils are actually living biologic environments, or at least they should be! The nature of our industrial agricultural model has depleted and compacted our soils, in some cases of key nutrients and biological activity and we need to begin to rebuild these living breathing systems. We also need to reintroduce the idea of “highest and best use” for different types of farm ground. Past Federally driven farm policies have caused poor decision making at the farmer level when it comes to deciding which kinds of crops to grow and where. Steep sloped lands and river edge lands should not be farmed to corn and beans, generally. We have better uses for these lands.


I’m excited about the promise of cleaning up our waters and holding our soils in place. The renaissance in food, driven in part by changing norms and expectations of younger generations, is providing new opportunities to consider how our food is grown, and work with producers and even food companies and the supply chain to develop new standards for what some are now calling “regenerative agriculture.”


If elected to the Polk County Soil and Water Commission, I will look for ways to increase funding to build the missing conservation infrastructure we so desperately need in this state, while looking for new ways to partner with producers who want to get out of the commodity “price taker” box by differentiating what they grow and how they grow it. Instead of blaming the consumer for being “confused” or “uniformed” about our agricultural systems, we ought to channel consumer expectations into new opportunities to show the world how we can grow food sustainably for future generations with less focus on quantity and more focus on resiliency, diversity and sustainability.

Perhaps we ought to include the conservationist ideal that we leave our farm ground (to the next generation) in better condition than we found it.

Top image: Blue-green algae bloom on Lake Erie, By NOAA (NASA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • We also really need to look at the Chesapeake Bay

    When serious political attention started to be paid to Iowa nutrient pollution after the famous lawsuit (Iowa conservation groups had been yelling about that pollution for decades but most politicians ignored us), the Iowa Farm Bureau started ranting about how, whatever else happened, Iowa needed to avoid the Chesapeake Bay approach to water quality. They warned that bringing the Chesapeake Bay approach to the Midwest would bankrupt all our farmers, send our state right down the toilet, and give us all cooties.

    Of course the reality is that the Bay approach is getting good results, and those results are more impressive every year. As the Gulf Dead Zone stays dead, the Bay is coming back to life. More seagrass, more fish, cleaner water, etc. And that’s because the Bay approach, unlike the Iowa approach, is not a big smiley face saying to farmers “If you ever happen to feel like it, you might want to consider doing a little conservation! Maybe!”

    Instead, the Bay approach involves every state in the Bay watershed having standards, timelines, deadlines, water monitoring, requirements, and penalties. So farmers in the Bay watershed are required to make changes and are making them. And it’s working. Some states in the Bay watershed are doing better than others, but all are making water quality progress. And none of them are making farm conservation completely optional like Iowa does.

    Some farmers in the Bay area are not happy about that, but the water is getting cleaner. No polluting industry is happy when it finally has to clean up its act. As long as Iowa focuses entirely on keeping farmers happy, clean water will remain a distant dream.

    As for wetlands, there is, alas, no free lunch. CREP wetlands do indeed benefit wildlife as well as cleanse water, which is great. But CREP wetlands won’t be real havens for wildlife, birders, and outdoor recreationists unless they have sizeable high-quality buffers around them, usually native prairie. And those sizeable buffers will almost always require that land be taken out of corn and beans.

    Trying to keep CREP wetlands and their buffers as small as possible, just barely big enough to cleanse polluted water, is what many farmers want so they can keep as much land as possible in rowcrops. That point of view is very understandable. But that approach doesn’t work so well for wildlife. I just read a research paper which pointed that out.

    There’s a good reason why the beautiful Chichaqua Bottoms project in Polk County is so wonderful for wildlife and why birders and outdoor recreationists love it. That project consists of wetlands set in a large prairie and woodland landscape. Wildlife was a primary consideration when that project was designed and implemented. The project is wonderful for soil and water as well. Polk County will have to decide whether to aim for the same kinds of wildlife benefits in CREP wetlands or settle for more limited benefits for cost and political reasons.

    Finally, Iowa’s water problem is not of course that farmers are using way too much fertilizer and manure. The problem is that our topsoil is in such bad shape that it can’t hold nutrients in place. Research has now shown that some abused Iowa soils would continue leaking nutrients into creeks and lakes even if farmers applied no fertilizer at all. Our soil used to behave like a sponge and now it behaves more like a brick.

    We desperately need healthier soil if we want clean water. And John Norwood sounds like a great candidate who can help make that happen.

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