Iowa water assessment criticized

By Donnelle Eller, The Des Moines Register
5 September 2014


A new report says Iowa and other Midwestern states need to better monitor and assess efforts to reduce nutrient pollution that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.

Twelve states have been charged with reducing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf — an area roughly the size of Connecticut that cannot support aquatic life during parts of the summer.

The inspector general for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said few states involved in the national effort have committed to specific reduction targets or timelines for cleaning up waterways that feed the Mississippi River basin.

"Reducing the size of the hypoxic zone poses a significant challenge," the report said. While the "states are in the process of developing and implementing nutrient reduction strategies, there is no requirement for states to ensure that they will fully implement them and that the practices implemented will achieve the intended watershed-level environmental goal."

The EPA and states need a "uniform and comprehensive measurement and accountability for setting goals and tracking progress at the state and watershed level," it went on to say.

Environmental groups said they believe the report will push the EPA to require strong timelines and monitoring requirements.

"Water quality advocates have been saying that a voluntary plan without timelines for measurable progress and real accountability will not result in clean water, and the inspector general confirmed this," said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Karl Brooks, the EPA’s Region 7 administrator, defended Iowa’s strategy, saying it "is a science and technology-based approach to assess and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways …" Farm groups say the state is making progress on improving water quality, pointing to growing efforts from farmers to adopt conservation practices, such as cover crops, buffer strips and grass waterways that reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering waterways. Additionally, an alliance between three Iowa farm groups was recently created to step up the "pace and scale" of state water quality improvement efforts.

"We’re trying to figure out how we measure progress," Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, said.

Northey co-chairs a national hypoxia task force that works with the EPA and includes the states that contribute the most nutrients to the Gulf dead zone.

Only Minnesota and Wisconsin have set nutrient reduction goals. And only Minnesota has set a timeline to accomplish its goals — 2025.

"You think, ah, you just measure water," Northey said. "But it changes so much from year to year, sometimes week to week, depending on rainfall. You get big differences in the numbers." A group of Iowa scientists and others are developing criteria to evaluate progress, Northey added. But, "we’re not coming up with a timeline that says we have to be done in this many years."

The report acknowledged that measuring progress is complicated. The Mississippi River basin covers 1.2 million square miles and is the third-largest watershed in the world.

"It is often difficult to draw a causal link between changes in land management practices and the resulting nutrient load because there is often a lag time," the report said. "It could take years or even decades for the effects to be fully realized."

The Environmental Law & Policy Center said the Iowa departments of agriculture and natural resources need to "add timelines, interim goals and accountability to the Iowa nutrient reduction strategies to ensure that Iowans get the clean water they deserve."

"We need implementation targets to assess progress, and we need to measure whether the water is cleaner at those target dates," Mandelbaum said. "Without these changes, communities like Des Moines will continue to struggle to clean nitrates out of its drinking water, and beaches around the state will continue to close because of toxic algae."

Susan Heathcote, water quality program director at the Iowa Environmental Council, said the report reinforces the size and scale of work that needs to be accomplished.

"We’re going to need to recognize the magnitude of the change that’s needed to achieve the results we’re after," she said. "Are these state strategies really taking on the serious task of significantly reducing" nutrient pollution?