Awash in ‘nutrients’

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: July 21 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 6:01 pm in
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The Gazette Editorial Board

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As if we needed a case in point, along came this past spring.

Extremely heavy rains flushed untold tons of topsoil into Iowa waterways — a likely record amount, erosion specialists say. With it, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fertilizer lingering in the soil from the previous season’s drought.

Nitrate levels reached record highs in several rivers — an extreme example of an ongoing problem that affects not only our state but everyone downstream.

Iowa is one of 12 states that have been called on by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels in waterways that empty into the Mississippi River — “nutrients” that contribute to the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone.

To that end, state officials recently finalized a Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based plan to assess and reduce the nutrient load in Iowa waterways, developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University.

It is the culmination of two years of research, our state’s first comprehensive plan for reducing nutrients in surface water from point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and private industry, and nonpoint sources, such as agricultural land.

DEPENDENT ON AG

Operational plans are in the works; many details have yet to be settled. But one thing already is clear: Iowa’s success in reaching its goal of a 45 percent reduction in nutrient load will rest largely on the agriculture sector, and whether rural landowners sufficiently embrace the plan’s voluntary conservation measures.

That’s no foregone conclusion, and it’s critics’ chief complaint about Iowa’s plan.

If they’re right, and nonpoint polluters and partners don’t step up to significantly curb the nutrients flowing into our waterways, stricter mandates will be in order.

Stable and sufficient funding — a critical piece that’s often been missing or inadequate in past conservation efforts — will be a key.

On point

Point source pollution plays a relatively small, but significant, role in Iowa’s water pollution problem. Because the pollution comes from a limited number of publicly permitted facilities, it also is the easiest to monitor, measure and control.

Easy, maybe. But not cheap.

According to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, 102 major facilities treat more than 80 percent of all municipal wastewater in Iowa. Another 28 permitted industrial facilities discharge significant amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen.

The plan calls for a two-thirds reduction in the amount of nitrogen released by these big players; three-fourths the amount of phosphorous. A goal that will require an estimated $1.5 billion in technological upgrades and new operational costs.

“The cost is enormous,” Iowa League of Cities Executive Director Alan Kemp told us this week. He said that city officials in Iowa recognize they have an environmental obligation to treat the waste: “They just want to make sure they can afford it, that citizens can afford it, and that it’s the best strategy.”

There’s also a question of diminishing returns: Even if the point polluters meet all of their targets, it would result in total reductions of only

4 percent of nitrogen and

16 percent of phosphorous entering Iowa’s waterways — a fraction of the overall goal.

Hard to grasp

In contrast, nonpoint pollution is diffuse and unpredictable, depending on private land-use practices, soil conditions, topography and weather.

And even though nonpoint pollution is the source of most of the nutrients entering Iowa’s waterways, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce its impact is similarly diffuse.

Where the strategy requires specific action from major point polluters as a condition of the permitting process, the document lists a host of possible nonpoint nutrient reduction and land use practices — all of which are in use — targeting specific watersheds and focusing conservation program incentives where they’re likely to do the most good.

Local farmers tell us that flexibility is the plan’s strength and weakness — and a necessary approach.

“It’s a strength because it leaves the farmer in control of his land,” Dick Sloan, of Rawley, said in an email. “It’s a weakness because it allows farmers to continue their mechanical thinking about the biological processes of producing a crop.”

Sloan and Linn County farmer Curt Zingula agreed that trying to impose mandates and sanctions to control nonpoint pollution simply wouldn’t work.

“How would we determine who needs to pay what amount?” Zingula asked in an email. How would it be policed? What about years, such as this one, where circumstances are highly unusual?

“Weather conditions often require us to use flexibility and quick action in the fields, not phone calls and emails to legislators asking for a variance due to ‘unexpected’ conditions,” Sloan wrote.

But getting landowners to participate in voluntary conservation practices means offering incentives as well as expertise. The strategy’s authors estimate nonpoint interventions could cost anywhere from $1.2 billion to $4 billion to start, followed by annual costs of up to $1.2 billion each

year.

Where all that money will come from is a bit of a mystery. Solving it will mean a great deal.

If Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to succeed, nonpoint polluters will have to do the heavy lifting — meeting statewide goals to reduce phosphorous loads by 29 percent and nitrogen loads by 41 percent.

CONCRETE PLAN

In creating Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, authors were careful to emphasize the joint nature of Iowa’s nutrient problem, and the collaborative spirit needed to address it.

There’s no benefit to pointing fingers at point or nonpoint polluters while letting the other party off the hook. Fundamental differences between the two sources do necessitate distinct strategies for addressing their role in the problem.

Still, it’s unreasonable to set such strict requirements for point polluters, without some concrete plan for ensuring nonpoint polluters do their part: A permanent, dedicated funding source for conservation programs, some minimum standards for highly vulnerable lands, and other solutions that take into account nonpoint polluters’ unique considerations, and unique importance in reducing nutrient loads.

Nonpoint sources are often private lands, but they’re negatively impacting public waterways. Reducing their impact will not only improve conditions in the Gulf Coast, but in our own rivers and streams, which are among the nation’s most impaired.

One suggestion, to create a system for trading point and nonpoint pollution reduction credits, has considerable support. The Water Resources Coordinating Council, in developing operational plans for the strategy, should strongly consider creating such a system if it’s feasible.

Another idea toward addressing the nonpoint problem might be to assess farmers a fee on fertilizer purchases toward a fund they can tap for assistance if they agree to implement approved conservation measures.

Bottom line: If voluntary measures prove insufficient to significantly reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels in our waterways, look for tougher talk — and mandates — from the EPA.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.com or (319) 398-8262

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