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Iowa Environmental Group: State Making Slow Progress Towards Water Quality Improvement Goals

Clay Masters
IPR file
To reach a goal of 6 million acres treated with bioreactors, it could take more than 31,000 years, the Iowa Environmental Council calculated.

A new analysis released by the Iowa Environmental Council on Tuesday says the state's approach to reducing nutrient runoff into waterways has been slow to meet its goals, six years into having a strategy in place. The analysis projects that at the state's current pace, it could take hundreds to tens of thousands of years for the state to reach some of the goals laid out to improve water quality.
The Iowa Environmental Council crunched some numbers from the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and came up with projections for how long it could take to reach them. It says for Iowa to reach the stated goal of 12.6 million acres for cover crops, it could take 90 years under the state's "current rate" of putting measures in place.

The council's Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson said the state’s implementation rate of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is “quite a bit slower” than what the council said it would expect to see.

“I like to think of this as what if you’re in a boat, and you’re rapidly taking on water and you try to bail yourself out with a Dixie cup,” Anderson said. “So you’re making progress toward getting some of the water out of your boat but you’re not really going to achieve that in a timely fashion to keep your boat from sinking.”

According to the analysis, for Iowa to reach its goal of treating 7.7 million acres with wetlands, it could take over 900 years. The analysis said construction of bioreactors in Iowa has flatlined. Bioreactors use microorganisms to remove nitrates from a wood chip bed underground. To reach a goal of 6 million acres treated with bioreactors, it could take more than 31,000 years, the Iowa Environmental Council calculated.

“We can see that the implementation of these practices is just not at the pace necessary to reach our goals,” Iowa Environmental Council Water Policy and Advocacy Specialist Alicia Vasto said.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy was adopted in 2013. A task force centered on decreasing the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone” caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorous from Mississippi River states’ runoff called on states along the river to put together their own plans.

Iowa Ag. Secretary Mike Naig said six years into having the strategy, the state is working to scale up its efforts by getting more boots on the ground to work with farmers, producers, landowners and cities on environmental practices.

“It’s unfair to suggest that we’re going to continue implementing practices at the rate that we currently are,” Naig said. “We’re just six years into implementing the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Several of these practices are new.”

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is voluntary for farmers. Naig said he thinks the strategy can be achieved with voluntary measures.

The Iowa Environmental Council said it doesn’t blame farmers for not adopting more conservation practices; rather, it says mandatory adoption of certain practices would even the playing field for farmers and bring greater results faster.