World-Herald editorial: Nitrate issue confronts Iowa

By Omaha World-Herald
January 29, 2015

Rain is a welcome sight to Midlands farmers. But that rainfall, along with melting snow, poses a problem when drainage carries away agricultural nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that can build up to environmentally harmful levels.

Perhaps the nation’s most troubling example is the so-called dead zone in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. The buildup of nitrogen and phosphorus harms wildlife by stimulating excessive algae growth that leaves little oxygen in the water.

Fertilizer runoff along the Mississippi River contributes to the problem, and in 2008 a dozen states along the Mississippi pledged to reduce fertilizer runoff into the river by 45 percent.

Achieving a reduction of that magnitude is a complex challenge. Iowa deserves credit for being the first in the nation to develop and pursue a coordinated statewide plan.

The Iowa plan was finalized in 2013. Known as the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, it aims to reduce phosphorous levels from wastewater plants and industrial sites by 16 percent and nitrogen by 2 percent. Iowa’s ag sector seeks to reduce its levels of nitrogen by 41 percent and phosphorous by 29 percent.

Last month, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey requested a two-year total of $7.5 million for the initiative.

Iowa’s strategy is sound, having been developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University.

At the same time, it remains an open question whether it can achieve adequate progress quickly enough.

A recent lawsuit filed by Des Moines’ drinking water utility shows the need for action. The utility, which spent nearly $1 million in 2013 to remove nitrates from water, is suing three northwestern Iowa counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The utility alleges that the counties failed to control agricultural runoff as required by the federal Clean Water Act and triggered the costly downstream water treatment operations.

The Iowa plan states that “significant progress toward these large nutrient reduction targets will take considerable time, effort and funding sources.” The general thrust of the strategy is intended to be “scientific, reasonable and cost-effective.”

Many of the techniques to be adopted by the ag sector are familiar in modern agriculture. Among the options in the plan: Changes in the timing, rate and methods of nitrogen application. Use of cover crops and crops converted into biomass for fuel. Conversion of acres into the Conservation Reserve Program. Extended crop rotations. Techniques for drainage management.

The state has named 13 demonstration watershed projects in the initiative. In western Iowa, projects include parts of the Floyd, North Raccoon, and East and West Nishnabotna Rivers.

The Iowa strategy in its current conception is voluntary and in the initial phase. Practices are to be regularly tested and evaluated. The plan states that it “is a dynamic strategy document that will evolve over time as new information, data and science are discovered and adopted.”

The plan emphasizes encouragement of “new science, new technologies and new opportunity.” This is a commendable, pioneering initiative.

An additional approach in Iowa is a program called Sustain, by which United Supplies, a fertilizer wholesaler, has worked with environmentalists on ways to encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce nutrient pollution.

Iowa deserves credit for approaching such a large problem in a focused, scientific way. Now, as the lawsuit shows, lies the challenge of moving ahead as soon as possible.

Read the full story here: