Iowa helped create ‘dead zone’; should help fix it

By Marian Riggs Gelb
DesMoines Register; February 9, 2008

As shown in a recent government study and noted in Philip Brasher’s article, "U.S. Study Says Iowa Among Main Gulf Polluters," Iowa ranks high among nine states whose farm runoff creates the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

When farm runoff flows into watersheds that drain into the Mississippi River, nitrogen and phosphorus end up in the Gulf, causing the growth of massive quantities of algae, robbing the waters of oxygen and killing marine life in an ever-growing area the size of New Jersey.
These facts should put Iowans on notice that, although many farmers have done much to stem runoff from their farms, the state agricultural industry as a whole is not doing enough. Federal studies that identify the sources of the Gulf’s pollution are not finger-pointing, as deemed by Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau. These studies provide the science Iowa needs to take responsibility for its part in polluting the Gulf, examine our water-quality priorities and request additional help from the federal government.
It won’t be cheap to stem our pollution. But, in all fairness, Iowa cannot continue to pass along the cost to other states. Iowa’s farm runoff contributes to the destruction of a $2.8 billion-per-year fishing industry operating along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. It may be uncomfortable to accept responsibility, but it’s the right thing to do – and solutions do exist. For one thing, through better planning, Iowa could better target the funds the state does have.
Over the years, Iowa has developed a patchwork of individual programs and plans to address water-quality issues in our state. Each individual program has brought sorely needed attention and financial resources to alleviate problems. However, this piecemeal approach is insufficient to effectively manage Iowa’s water resources.

The release of this government report makes 2008 the consummate time to develop a comprehensive water-resource planning and management system, which could bring together all the pieces, both programs and funding. Such a system would provide a big-picture view of water resources in our state, enable planning on a watershed basis, enhance program coordination and cooperation, eliminate redundancies, bring state and federal partners together to the planning table and wisely target financial resources.
In addition to improving the management of our current programs and funding, Iowa should request increased federal funding for farm-conservation practices in Iowa and the eight other states that are the biggest contributors to the dead zone.

Two versions of the new federal farm bill sit in Congress as lawmakers negotiate the final draft. Let’s tell our elected officials that the final bill should establish protecting the Gulf of Mexico as a national priority, requiring targeted conservation dollars to these nine states, including Iowa, specifically to finance practices that will decrease farm runoff.
The science is in. We’re part of the problem. Let’s focus on the solution.

MARIAN RIGGS GELB is executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.