Iowa's contribution to Mississippi River basin nitrate levels. (Photo: Lyndsey Nielsen/USA Today Network)

Iowa’s contribution to Mississippi River basin nitrate levels. (Photo: Lyndsey Nielsen/USA Today Network)

Register Editorial Board / Des Moines Register June 28, 2018

Iowa Natural Resources Trust offers best solution to reduce farm runoff that is poisoning the Gulf.

If it weren’t for Iowa, the Gulf of Mexico would have less fish-killing fertilizer flowing into it from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

That’s one of the most discouraging conclusions from a University of Iowa study, as reported recently by the Register. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars that Iowa has poured into water-quality initiatives over the past two decades, the amount of nitrates our state contributes to the Gulf dead zone has increased by nearly 50 percent, the report states.

How does this happen? It’s easy to see these days, as Iowans around the state are again experiencing summertime flooding. High, fast, dirty-brown water is rushing down the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers and their tributaries, carrying away our rich Iowa topsoil, its naturally occurring nutrients and all the fertilizers, pesticides and manure we apply to it.

Talk about flushing our money merrily down the stream.

It’s embarrassing. Worse, it’s shameful. Iowa now contributes about 40 percent of the excess nutrients that feed the dead zone, an oxygen-starved area in the Gulf where no marine life can survive. The barren area is forecast to exceed the size of Connecticut this year. We’ve long known that Iowa was a major part of the problem; now we are the problem.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, in a guest column, cast blame on extreme weather for fluctuations in nitrate levels that could make water monitoring unreliable at times. “If we measure the rivers — especially now when we’re looking at widespread flooding — we see weather effects, rather than things farmers, landowners or cities can control,” he wrote. “We can’t control the volatile weather we’re experiencing right now, but we can mitigate impacts to the landscape by the types and number of conservation practices implemented.”

We can’t control the weather, although it seems disingenuous to ignore that the effects of climate change are part of the problem, and Iowa should be doing its share to address that. But the fact remains that other states were also subject to extreme weather but managed to reduce their nitrate levels flowing into the Gulf. The study in particular cites Indiana, where farmers are ahead of Iowa in embracing the use of cover crops, which help hold nitrates in the soil.

The study underscores that Iowa’s water-quality initiative approved this year, mainly for for voluntary water and soil conservation projects, seems like spitting into the ocean. Senate File 512, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, provides $282 million over a dozen years for Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That’s a voluntary program to help farmers pay for cover crops, buffer strips and other projects aimed at water and soil conservation. It’s a good program, but it’s not going to be enough.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy has identified a $3 billion to $6 billion problem. Former Gov. Terry Branstad recognized the scale of funding needed, proposing to raise $4.6 billion by diverting school infrastructure funds, which turned out to be politically unpopular on both sides of the aisle.

What’s so frustrating is that Iowa has had a solution sitting right in front of us for the better part of a decade, but our elected officials have lacked the political courage to act.

Iowa voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund. In the years since, support has only grown for funding the trust with a three-eighths penny sales tax increase. Earlier this year, two-thirds of Iowans said in the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll that they supported raising the sales tax a full penny to fund the trust as well as expand mental health programs.

Getting money flowing to the trust fund would generate new revenue, which Iowa needs. That revenue would be constitutionally protected to use exclusively for the outdoors. State law requires money be used for specific endeavors, including wildlife habitat restoration, trails, local conservation and water quality. Especially water quality. Up to 60 percent of the estimated $150 million to $180 million generated annually by the sales tax could go toward improving, protecting and restoring waterways, according to a report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Iowa would finally be able to adequately fund water protection projects, including buffer strips, permanent vegetation cover, bank stabilization and dredging.

In Missouri, residents have repeatedly approved a sales tax dedicated to parks, soils and water. The money has helped the state prevent more than 175 million tons of soil from eroding into waterways. It funds technical and financial assistance for landowners to construct terraces, grassed waterways, ponds and implemented practices specifically designed to improve water quality.

Had the Iowa Legislature acted back in 2011 to fund the trust, we would by now have invested the nearly $1 billion into preserving our land and water. But the politicians listened to the Farm Bureau and other interest groups instead of to their constituents.

These same politicians may want to tell you this issue is now settled — Senate File 512 is signed and it needs time to work. Don’t listen to them. This year’s election is a referendum on many “settled” issues: privatized Medicaid, the future of education, tax policy and many other issues. The future of our environment, the safety of our water and Iowa’s contribution to the health of the planet should rank right up there with voters’ top priorities.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell has embraced funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. Gov. Kim Reynolds has not, but she has publicly stated that this year’s legislation was just a starting point. Voters also should be asking for positions on watershed management and flood mitigation.

Our congressional delegation also has a role to play in forming federal farm policy in a way that supports conservation and multi-crop rotation and works to reduce our country’s contribution to global climate change.

Iowa has had spent decades ignoring the fact that we’re poisoning the ocean. It’s past time to own the blame and take responsibility for cleaning up our mess.