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Water Quality Hasn't Improved in Iowa Since the 1980s

Iowa’s water quality hadn’t nudged much since the 1980s. That’s according to Iowa Geological Survey research scientist Keith Schilling.

“If we want to see improvement, we’re going to have to make changes on a large scale. If you take a watershed like the Cedar River, for example, that’s 6500 square miles. There are a lot of farmers in that watershed. What percentage of those need to do something to make a difference?”

According to Schilling, most of our water quality issues in Iowa have to do with the way we farm. Common pollutants in our water like nitrogen and phosphorous come from fertilizers and run off from farm land. Those chemicals encourage plant growth in the soil, and they also encourage plant growth in our water, which leads to algae blooms that deplete oxygen.

Credit Erin Irish
run off from an animal feeding unit in eastern Iowa

Brandon farmer Dick Sloan voluntarily monitors runoff from his farm. He says many farmers apply more nitrogen than they need to ensure yield, which contributes to the problem.

In Iowa, there is also a high level of ammonia, bacteria and soil in the water. Schilling says high ammonia and bacteria levels usually indicate pollution from an animal feeding operation. Rita Dvorak knows that all too well. She’s spent more than $15,000 and years communicating with the DNR trying to get a neighbor who raises cattle to clean up his farm.  

During this Talk of Iowa interview, Charity Nebbe talks with Schilling, Sloan, Dvorak and Iowa Department of Natural Resources Mason City Field Office Supervisor Jeff VanSteenburg about how our water quality has changed over time, why it's changed and how the state has approached regulating and monitoring it. 

Water quality in Iowa hasn't changed much since the 1980's.

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa