Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River BasinWater Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin Sara Conrad David Osterberg Michael Burkart November 2016 The Iowa Policy - [PDF Document] (2024)

Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin

Sara Conrad David Osterberg Michael Burkart November 2016

The Iowa Policy Project 20 E. Market Street • Iowa City, Iowa 52245 (319) 338-0773 (phone) • (319) 354-4130 (fax) www.iowapolicyproject.org


Authors and Acknowledgments

Sara Conrad joined the Iowa Policy Project as a research associate in the spring of 2016. Sara has a J.D. focusing on water and agricultural law, a M.S. in Environmental Chemistry and B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State University, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Naval Research Laboratory, she has served as a liaison between community, university and government representatives for over 15 years. She focuses at IPP on energy and environment issues, with her principal role in coordinating energy issue work among many organizations in the state. David Osterberg is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa and a former state representative known for his passion for energy and environmental issues. David holds an M.S. in water resources management and another in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project, he served as director for the first 12 years of the organization and remains as IPP’s lead researcher on issues affecting policy on energy and the environment. Michael Burkart has studied Iowa hydrology since 1974 as a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (USDA) and the Department of Geological and Atmospheric at Iowa State University. His research interests include quantitative techniques to assess and estimate water quality responses to agricultural at a regional scale. Most recently he has studied how to reduce agricultural nitrogen loads to streams and develop methods to allocate source-loads of nutrients that may impair water resources. He also led the development of nutrient criteria for Iowa lakes for the Department of Natural Resources. We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the McKnight Foundation and the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation, which made the preparation of this report possible. While these funders support the research that went into this report, they may not necessarily agree with policy recommendations that are included. Policy recommendations are solely the perspective of the authors and the Iowa Policy Project.

The Iowa Policy Project

Formed in 2001, the Iowa Policy Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. Its principal office is at 20 E. Market Street, Iowa City, IA 52245. The Iowa Policy Project promotes public policy that fosters economic opportunity while safeguarding the health and well-being of Iowa’s people and the environment. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, the Iowa Policy Project advances accountable, effective and fair government. All reports produced by the Iowa Policy Project are made available to the public, free of charge, via the organization’s website at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org. The Iowa Policy Project is a 501(c)3 organization. Contributions to support our work may be tax-deductible. We may be reached at the address above, by phone at (319) 338-0773, by email at [emailprotected], or through other contacts available at our website.




List of Tables ............................................................................................................................................................... iv

List of Figures ............................................................................................................................................................. iv

A. Nutrient Pollution in Iowa — Eutrophication .................................................................................................... 3

B. Public Health Effects of Nutrient Pollution ....................................................................................................... 5

1. Nitrogen/Nitrate ........................................................................................................................................... 5

2. Cyanobacteria ............................................................................................................................................. 5

Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy ............................................................................................................................... 6

A. Actions to reduce the problem and comply with the goals of the NRS ............................................................ 7

1. Conservation Reserve Program And Pasture ............................................................................................. 7

2. Buffers and Grassed Waterways ................................................................................................................ 8

3. Cover Crops ................................................................................................................................................ 8

B. How much conservation spending is being done by farmers? ........................................................................ 9

C. Commitment and understanding ................................................................................................................... 10

D. Increased Monitoring is Needed ................................................................................................................... 12

Conclusion-What is getting better? ........................................................................................................................... 12



Table 1. Conservation land use in Iowa 7

Table 2. Recent CRP growth just catching up to last decade levels 7

Table 3. Majority of farmers report no spending 9

Table 4. More farmers, landowners report spending on conservation measures (2014 survey) 9

Table 5. Percent of respondents describing their opinions of water quality in Iowa 10


Figure 1. How nutrients deplete oxygen to cause a dead zone 1

Figure 2. Half of states contribute to the Gulf dead zone 2

Figure 3. Agricultural and urban areas contribute to the Gulf dead zone 2

Figure 4. 2011-15 average size of Gulf dead zone three times the goal 3

Figure 5. Agriculture sources are leading contributors of nutrients to Gulf of Mexico 4

Figure 8. Blue-green algae — or cyanobacteria 6

Figure 9. In-Field Nutrient Management in Iowa 8

Figure 10. Percent of respondents describing their knowledge of the NRS 10

The Iowa Policy Project 20 E. Market St. • Iowa City, Iowa 52245 • (319) 338-0773


November 2016

Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin What Do We Know?

By Sara Conrad, David Osterberg and Michael Burkart

Despite voluntary conservation efforts, nutrient pollution continues to be problematic in the Mississippi River Basin and in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2001, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force set a goal to reduce the five-year average area of the gulf hypoxic zone to 1,950 square miles by 2015. Unfortunately, the Gulf hypoxic zone continues to average approximately 6,000 square miles.1 Iowa must continue efforts to reduce nutrient levels in Iowa watersheds to improve the overall Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico water quality.

Hypoxic zones are areas in water systems that have low concentrations of oxygen (less than 2ppm). These areas are often referred to as “dead zones” because the marine life either dies or leaves the area to survive. Dead zones occur in many areas of the country (along the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes) but it is important to note that the second largest dead zone in the world is in the northern Gulf of Mexico.2 Although a hypoxic zone can occur naturally, the areas created or worsened by human activity are of most concern. Excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are the primary causes of these dead zones. The sources of nutrients are surface runoff and pipes discharging municipal/industrial wastewater and agricultural drainage into rivers and coasts. Large loads of N, particularly in the form of nitrate, are discharged into the Gulf of Mexico and accelerate the production of algae in the presence of generally abundant silica and P. When the algae die and fall to the bottom, they are consumed by bacteria in the lower depths depleting the system of oxygen (Figure 1). Iowa is one of the top contributors of nutrient pollution to the Gulf, among many states that contribute to the problem.3,4 (Figures 2-3) Attention to the loss of an internationally important fishing industry in the Gulf has spurred action to clean up Iowa’s waters and help reduce the large hypoxic or dead zone where the Mississippi River system enters the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 1. How nutrients deplete oxygen to cause a dead zone

Source: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, What is Hypoxia (2014), available at http://www.gulfhypoxia.net/Overview/


Despite voluntary nutrient reduction strategies in states like Iowa, recent data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show no improvement in the inter-annual variation in the size of the dead zone. NOAA and USGS forecasted that the 2016 Gulf of Mexico dead zone would be approximately 5,898 square miles (15,275 square kilometers).56 While Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) indicated that area could be even larger with estimates of 6,824 square miles (17,674 square kilometers)7. Unfortunately, the annual research cruise to map the dead zone was canceled for 2016 due to equipment issues.8 However, even without confirmation of the 2016 predicted dead zone size, the five-year average size of the dead zone is three times what EPA has set as a goal (Figure 4). It will take years to see improvements. In the meantime, however, the effort should help address related challenges of water quality and loss of aquatic resources here at home.9

Figure 2. Half of states contribute to the Gulf dead zone

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 10

Figure 3. Agricultural and urban areas contribute to the Gulf dead zone Agricultural and urban areas drain into the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico 2009 Satellite image showing the agricultural (green) and urban (red) areas that drain into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. The red and yellow areas in the Gulf of Mexico represent high phytoplankton concentrations due to the excess nutrients. 11 Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Figure 4. 2011-15 average size of Gulf dead zone three times the goal


The Iowa Legislature and government agencies have paid more attention to improving water quality in the past three years somewhat in response to EPA pressure. In 2013, the state introduced the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) and established the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Following these efforts, the Iowa Legislature committed an additional $22.4 million in Water Quality funding and the Iowa Nutrient Research Center was established to evaluate the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices, and recommend implementation and development of new practices. The focus in Iowa on water quality issues and potential sources of funding present a unique opportunity to look at potential improvements to Iowa’s water quality as it relates to agricultural practices.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential nutrients needed to increase agricultural yields, but their overabundance in water systems is a form of pollution that can cause many adverse health outcomes and ecological effects.12 Figure 5 shows that the clear majority of nutrients reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River originate from agricultural sources including corn, soybean, and other annual crops, as well as pasture and range land. In Iowa, where row-cropped farmland dominates the landscape, agriculture represents an even greater percentage of the nutrients that drain from our rivers into the Mississippi River system. Data gathered for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy show nonpoint sources (mainly agriculture) make up more than 93 percent13 of the target load reductions for N. P loadings from agriculture are somewhat lower, representing about two-thirds of the total P load in Iowa streams.14 The nonpoint source load estimates include drainage districts and private drainage systems that have substantially altered the hydrology in most of central and northern Iowa with extensive subsurface drainage systems. These systems rapidly transmit leachable nutrients — nitrate but also dissolved phosphorus and other agricultural chemicals — from the root zone to streams at multiple points via collection pipes.


Figure 5. Agriculture sources are leading contributors of nutrients to Gulf of Mexico

In addition to the agricultural field drainage systems, weather has a large impact on nitrate loss from farm fields. University of Iowa researcher Chris Jones’ recent blog15 agrees that application rates, crop type and weather are all factors in the amount of N and P present from agricultural runoff. However, it is not yet clear exactly how N application, type of crops and weather combine to produce high concentrations in river water. Even though the mechanisms for nutrient pollution are complex, it is becoming clear that so long as annual row crops are grown to the exclusion of rotations and perennial cover, nutrient delivery to streams will continue to be problematic especially during high rainfall years. It is the way we farm — not the amount of rain — that causes this problem. Figure 6 demonstrates that on average, nitrate loads are increasing.16 This trend is widely recognized. However, the appropriate question for Iowans to ask is arguably not whether nutrient pollution is increasing. Rather, the critical question is: Are we actually improving the water quality of Iowa’s streams and rivers given the extent of nutrient contamination? 17

Figure 6. Average Nitrate loads growing from Iowa to its border rivers Annual nitrate-N load from Iowa to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in units of tons




In addition to contributing to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, nitrate has a large impact on the ecology of Iowa’s lakes and streams. Nitrogen is the nutrient applied to fields most abundantly in the agriculture industry. Nitrogen in soil organic matter and fertilizer is converted to soluble nitrate (NO3) by bacteria in the soil, facilitating both plant uptake and leaching. Nitrate is a pollutant with significant negative human health effects. Public water supplies are required by the EPA to keep NO3 (measured as the mass of N in nitrate — NO3-N) concentrations below 10 milligrams per liter of water (ppm). The origin of the standard is to avoid methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome, a condition exhibited primarily in infants and small children, which can result from drinking water contaminated with nitrate. In addition to blue baby syndrome, several studies have identified nitrate as a cause of several health problems.18 The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) has issued a paper that reviews compelling research regarding broader public health risks of nitrate contamination in drinking water.19 Several of the recent studies cited in the IEC report were conducted, at least in part, in Iowa and showed significant associations between birth defects and cancers and nitrate levels in water. In some cases, the adverse health outcomes were found to be linked to nitrate levels below the drinking water standard.20,21 Continuously high NO3-N concentrations in its source water led the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) to file suit against three upstream counties with agricultural drainage districts in 2015.


As we wrote in a previous IPP report on water quality, high NO3-N concentrations in drinking water are not the only public health risks from nutrient contamination. Nitrogen and phosphorus both play a role in a new pressing concern in Iowa and the Midwest in general. Nutrient contamination can promote the growth of cyanobacteria blooms, which sometimes produce toxins that have resulted in several beach advisories about levels of toxins making contact with the water unsafe for swimming and compromised sources of drinking water. Documented adverse health effects to humans from exposure to cyanotoxins include acute hepatoxicity (liver damage), neurotoxicity, gastrointestinal problems, and a wide range of allergic reactions.22 In response to these serious health concerns, the Iowa Department of Public Health has made cyanotoxin illness a mandatory reporting requirement for health care providers. 23

Many Iowans were unaware of the dangers of cyanobacteria until 2014, when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water since neither the water treatment system nor boiling would remove the toxin. As noted in a 2014 Washington Post story about this incident:

“And with these algal blooms predicted to worsen in Lake Erie and other lakes and reservoirs — thanks to a mix of global warming, invasive species and pollution — the issue is expected to pop up more often. Some believe Toledo could be a tipping point.”24

Recent scientific papers have demonstrated why potentially toxic cyanobacterial blooms may increase in severity. Warmer temperatures and heavy rainfall events with long dry periods in between will lead to acceleration of the eutrophication25 process that the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus make possible.26 27 The EPA has noted these weather patterns are predicted to


occur more frequently with changing trends in Midwest climate.28 A 2014 statement by 180 scientists and educators at 38 Iowa colleges and universities states that climate conditions will affect public health in several ways including the increased possibility of cyanobacteria outbreaks.29 Since climate change is more difficult to reverse, concentrating on reducing nutrient loads seems a more reasonable approach.

In fact, Iowa is already experiencing rising levels of cyanobacteria. The state monitors such outbreaks at state-owned beaches. During summer months, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitors for microcystins, a class of toxins produced by cyanobacteria, at 39 state-owned beaches. Figure 7 shows an increase in Iowa state beach advisories over the past few years.30,31 In 2016, cyanotoxin was identified in the Des Moines Water Works drinking water, but was at low enough levels that it did not trigger an advisory.32

Figure 7. Iowa beach advisories increase

Figure 8. Blue-green algae — or cyanobacteria

Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Council


To address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution both within and outside the state, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences drafted a plan (Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS)) to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources. The strategy includes ideas for reducing nutrient loads discharged from wastewater treatment plants and farm fields. The primary responsibility for tracking progress in meeting the NRS is under the purview of the Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC), a


group of state and federal agency representatives who meet several times each year. The latest annual progress report for the NRS shows some progress in implementing practices to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. However, that progress is overstated, as we make the case for in more detail below.


The most significant opportunities to reduce contamination from nutrient runoff and groundwater discharge to Iowa waterways include implementing land use changes, per the NRS. For example, keeping more land seeded down to a winter cover crop or using more land in pasture reduces direct water runoff, increases evapotranspiration, and improves infiltration that reduces nutrient losses to groundwater thus releasing fewer nutrients to streams. Also, implementing permanent buffers along streams or in grassed waterways help reduce nutrient pollution in surface runoff.

1. Conservation Reserve Program and Pasture The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rents farmland from willing owners and requires it be converted to conservation cover for years at a time. The amount of CRP and pasture vary by year depending on such things as crop prices and cropland rents. The USDA Summary Report on the National Resources Inventory: 2012 published in August of 2015 shows a 50 percent decrease in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and a 16 percent decrease in pasture acres in Iowa between 1992 and 2012. Based on data from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Progress Report 2015-2016, it appears that the decrease in CRP acreage has been reversed. Table 1 shows that the total CRP acres in Iowa have risen to nearly 1.5 million acres in 2015 (acreages that were last seen in 2002, Table 2). Table 1. Conservation land use in Iowa

Alternative field crops (e.g., alfalfa, rye, and wheat), pasture, and conservation reserve program (CRP) acres were obtained from the Farm Service Agency crop acreage data. †The adoption of cost-share perennial vegetation since 2011 were calculated from federal and state cost-share data. This perennial vegetation was calculated from new installations of critical area planting and conservation cover, both of which are NRCS-standardized practices. Land Use (Acres)

However, the report only shows recent progress. A more in-depth look at trends for CRP in Iowa, show that the state point is, Iowa is still half a million acres below the greater than 2 million CRP acreage it once had in 1992 (Table 2). While it is good to show recent progress, the NRS annual report should use all data available, to best represent problems and solutions. If Iowa once had more than 2 million acres in CRP pasture, it may make sense to we should make that a minimum goal if we are to use this tool to “improve” water quality.

Table 2. Recent CRP growth just catching up to last decade levels



2. Buffers and Grassed Waterways

There are challenges to data availability when measuring the amount of land in the CRP, left in pasture or the amount of cover crops, terraces, grassed waterways, stream buffers or wetlands and bioreactors established. The NRS annual report pointed out that with taxpayer funding through sharing costs, there has been some success in establishing new practices on the land. However, while some producers have increased the protection of the land, other producers failed to maintain or eliminated similar conservation practices and structures. In a February 2016 publication Fooling Ourselves, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that tax dollars contributed to conservation practices in an area were nearly offset by similar practices that had disappeared. EWG used aerial imagery from the USDA to show changes from 2011 to 2014 in the same area for two practices, stream buffers and grassed waterways.

Information that more accurately reflects net conservation activity needs to be included in reporting to make it meaningful. This information is also a stark reminder that if conservation investment is voluntary, these efforts will be balanced with the profitability of farming. Any progress attributed to the NRS must acknowledge not only what practices are established, and any share paid by taxpayers, but also what is voluntarily lost. Data from the EWG report and the data on the effectiveness of our long-term investments in the CRP do not convince us that the voluntary approach is working.

3. Cover Crops

An emphasis of the NRS passed in 2013 has been to encourage farmers to plant cover crops after the main row crop is harvested. Some progress has been made as described in Figure 10.

Figure 9. In-Field Nutrient Management in Iowa

The amount of land in cover crops has expanded greatly with more than a 125,000-acre increase between 2014 and 2015 to a total of 400,000 acres. However, this amount requires context, 400,000 acres represents less than 2 percent of the 24 million crop acres in harvested row crops in Iowa. At a yearly rate of 125,000 acres added per year, it would take approximately 100 years to protect half the row cropland currently in production.



The NRS Annual Report33 as well as several surveys of landowners and farmers by Iowa State University contain data on the actions being taken to voluntarily implement conservation practices on farmland in the state. One relevant question beyond these data would be how much farmers spend on conservation. The question was asked both in 2011 and 2014 by The Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey by sociologists at Iowa State University. The 2011 Summary Report reported the following:

“A single question measured farmer investment in conservation over the previous decade. The question was prefaced by the text, ‘Over the past 10 years, what was the approximate total cost of all of the conservation practices (not including tile or similar drainage systems) that you have implemented on the farmland you own to address soil erosion, water quality, wildlife habitat or similar conservation issues? Please consider all expenses, including labor and materials provided in-kind and those covered by cost-share or other sources.’ A majority of farmers (51 percent) reported that they had incurred no conservation expenditures at all in the ten years prior to the 2011 survey.”

Comments from the creators of the poll are quite specific as to the problem this small amount of farmer investment in conservation will have on water quality.

“Perhaps most significantly, more than half of farmers reported that they had not invested any money in conservation over the previous 10 years, and an additional 21 percent reported spending less than $5,000 (table 7). These findings are cause for concern given that soil erosion and water quality impairment continue to be major problems across Iowa.” 34

A 2014 Farm and Rural Life Poll shows more farmers and landowners spending on conservation.

Table 4. More farmers, landowners report spending on conservation measures (2014 survey)

Table 3. Majority of farmers report no spending on conservation practices over 10 years (2011)


This is encouraging and suggest that perhaps the new emphasis on water quality is motivating landowners to do more to protect land and reduce water pollution. However, both polls demonstrate that asking that producers to voluntarily spend funds to protect water does not motivate all producers. Even in the 2014 survey, more than 40 percent of producers spent less than $5,000 over the previous 10 years, or less than $500 per year. Since the average size of an Iowa farm is 345 acres, this suggests that voluntary action has brought spending of little more than a dollar an acre.35


One reason we might expect increased conservation spending is a recent emphasis by farm groups and by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to encourage more voluntary conservation-friendly behavior by agricultural landowners and producers. The most recent NRS report demonstrates that more farmers are aware of the strategy.

Figure 10. Percent of respondents describing their knowledge of the NRS

These data were obtained from the 2015 NRS Farmer Survey and the 2014 Farm and Rural Life Poll conducted by ISU researchers. Sampling techniques differed between the two studies; the two sets of results should not be compared directly, but this figure serves to illustrate a possible shi ft in farmers’ knowledge of the NRS

Table 5. Percent of respondents describing their opinions of water quality in Iowa

More farmers became aware of the NRS between 2014 and 2015 and the new emphasis on reducing the effects of agriculture on water quality through implementation of the various practices recommended in the NRS. In addition, data from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll in the 2014 survey, Farmer Perspectives on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Table 4 — “Awareness


and concern about agriculture’s impacts on water quality” — showed that two additional items are relevant.36

First, most farmers report they are concerned about agriculture’s effect on water quality. This is also good news. However, the other item in the table shows that nearly half of the respondents are uncertain if their farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf or are sure they have not had an effect. This finding caused concern to the survey designers.

“Considering the high levels of concern about the impact of agriculture on Iowa’s water quality, it was somewhat surprising that 40 percent of farmers were uncertain about whether or not nutrients from Iowa farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Given the amount of attention Gulf hypoxia has received in recent years, and the role that the Hypoxia Task Force played in encouraging Iowa to develop the NRS, this result was unexpected.” 37

Similarly, respondents reported a lack of understanding of agricultural effects on water quality in another recent survey of farmers. Results of that survey taken in a watershed around Black Hawk Lake in central Iowa also caused the survey designers some concern.

“Just as telling is the large percentage of farmer respondents who replied they did not know if agricultural byproducts were impairing the water quality in their area. Thirty-one percent of farmer respondents claimed not to know if high bacteria counts were an issue, 25 percent said they did not know if fertilizers or nitrates affected the water quality, and 29 percent said the same for pesticide use. Even more discouraging is the percentage of farmer respondents who claimed agricultural practices had no effect on water quality in their area: 10 percent for high bacteria practices considered Most Responsible for Existing Watershed Pollution counts, 9 percent for fertilizer/nitrate use, and 22 percent for pesticide use. Taken together, the combined “don’t know” and “not a problem” responses indicate a large knowledge gap for landowners and farmer operators in the watershed.” 38


“Although farmers often claim a deep-seated knowledge of their land because they work it, the degree to which some farmers choose to not make the connection between how they farm and its impact on water quality is dispiriting.” 39

These survey results show that just having heard about the NRS is not enough to conclude Iowa producers are concerned or informed about their role in water quality.

Doubtful of their effect on water quality, farmers are not making much progress in protecting land, based on the longer-term view presented in the EWG report. Cover crops might be an answer but an important question is how long can we wait to see them widely adopted on a voluntary basis, and even if they are adopted, what will assure that many farmers continue to stay with cover crops? The amount of CRP acres are also only three quarters of what they once were and pasture has decreased dramatically along with other crops, such as oats, grown in soil-conserving rotations. Furthermore, much of the investment to improve field practices is being overcome by other producers who remove previously established and sometimes taxpayer funded practices.



In addition to gathering data on progress in the minds of farmers and on the land, progress in water quality needs to have more verification, which can only come with actual measurement of water quality in the state. Iowa needs to increase water quality monitoring activities to document the effectiveness of the conservation practices. Stream monitoring for water chemistry has recently expanded, particularly in response to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. However, the number of stream discharge measurement sites and sediment concentration measurements have been reduced despite an expanded need for them. Monitoring for particulate and especially dissolved phosphorus is a major gap in the Iowa’s monitoring efforts. While there have been some new continuous monitors established on rivers, there have been no increases in monitoring on lakes or reservoirs.

In the fiscal year beginning July 2016 alone, 16 continuous stream discharge sites were discontinued from the cost-share program between IDNR and the U.S. Geological Survey. As noted in a report prepared by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University and the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Center at the University of Iowa, there are many challenges associated with water quality monitoring. These include lag time in measurements, variable and extreme weather events, and excess nutrients present in the soil after conservation practices have been put in place. The team tracking the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy focuses on modeling as the source of knowledge on water quality progress. Obviously, modeling is valuable. However, monitoring data is also critical to ground-truth modeling, and without both discharge and concentration data, it is impossible to define the context and the ultimate source of a contaminant. Therefore, we need to continue to increase our funding for more monitoring efforts throughout the state and no more monitoring stations should be eliminated in order to properly assess future progress towards reducing nutrient pollution.

In addition, a considerable amount of the monitoring that Iowans are buying is not being reported into standardized, publicly available databases or provided in ways that facilitate interpretation. It is understandable that agricultural groups demand on farm-level confidentiality, but this can be accomplished through recognized procedures long practiced in Iowa and beyond.


Based on the current information, the efforts undertaken in Iowa in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to maintain and not increase levels of nutrients in streams. Although our agricultural community is aware of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, there is still a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between their business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of the state and the nation. Incremental improvement in awareness is a positive first step toward solving our problems, but far more work remains if we are to accurately locate and reduce the sources of nutrients in our waters and substantively reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone and improve the overall health of Iowa’s water systems.

The recent (February 2016) EWG report provided a more complete view of progress toward reducing nutrients in Iowa’s streams than that of the annual report of the NRS.40 A recent report by the Iowa Environmental Council shows that even more problems than blue baby syndrome are


caused by high levels of nitrate that pollute drinking water sources. The more pressing concerns are the possible adverse effects linked to long-term, low dose exposures to nitrate in water (cancers), and the more immediate low-dose short term exposure related to some birth defects.

All Iowans want to see progress in meeting our goals to improve water quality. In the future, an independent and objective analysis of the progress toward the goals is needed to more fairly and accurately represent the public’s returns for our investments in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Iowans’ need cleaner water, and we deserve a responsible and thorough accounting for the billions of dollars that state and federal taxpayers have spent and plan to spend to improve water quality.

1 National Centers for Coastal Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, Another Average “Dead Zone” Predicted for Gulf of Mexico in 2016 (2016), available at: https://coastalscience.noaa.gov/news/coastal-pollution/another-average-dead-zone-predicted-gulf-mexico-2016/ 2 U.S. EPA, Hypoxia 101 (2008), available at https://www.epa.gov/ms-htf/hypoxia-101 3 National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, What is a dead zone? (2014), available at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/deadzone.html 4 Alexander, R., Smith, R., Schwartz, G., Boyer, E., Nolan, J., Brakebill, J. “Differences in Phosphorus and Nitrogen Delivery to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin Phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico map.” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008, 42 (3), pp 822–830 5 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration and United States Geological Survey. NOAA and USGS, partners predict an average 'dead zone' for Gulf of Mexico. (2016), available at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-06/nh-nup060916.php 6 USGS, Discussion of 2016 Preliminary Spring (April and May) Nutrient Fluxes (2016), available at http://toxics.usgs.gov/hypoxia/mississippi/oct_jun/graphics.html 7 Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, 2016 Forecast: Summer Hypoxic Zone Size Northern Gulf of Mexico (2016), available at https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2857898/2016-Hypoxia-Forecast-LSU-LUMCON-1.pdf 8 Schleifstein, Mark. “’Dead zone' mapping cruise canceled for first time in 27 years.“ NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] July 29, 2016. Available at http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/07/engine_problem_forces_cancella.html 9 Gulf Restoration Network, Dead zone forecasted to be average and that’s not good. (2015), available at http://www.healthygulf.org/blog/dead-zone-forecasted-be-average-and-thats-not-good 10 U.S. EPA, The Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB) (2015), available at https://www.epa.gov/ms-htf/mississippiatchafalaya-river-basin-marb 11 National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, What is a dead zone? (2014), available at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/deadzone.html 12 USGS, Nitrogen and water (2013), available at http://water.usgs.gov/edu/nitrogen.html 13 Eller, Donnelle. “How much money is too much to cut water pollution?” Des Moines Register [Des Moines] June 27, 2016. Available at: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2016/06/27/how-much-money-too-much-cut-water-pollution/86148558/ 14 Iowa State University. Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: A science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. 2013. 15 Jones, C.(2016). Water Quality Monitoring and Research. [Blog] The Power of monitoring. Available at: https://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/cjones/the-power-of-monitoring/ 16 http://water.usgs.gov/edu/nitrogen.html 17 Jones, C.(2016). Water Quality Monitoring and Research. [Blog] The Power of monitoring. Available at: https://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/cjones/the-power-of-monitoring/ 18 Spontaneous Abortions Possibly Related to Ingestion of Nitrate-Contaminated Well Water-LaGrange County, Indiana 1991-1994, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, Report 26, Centers for Disease Control (July 5, 1996) pp. 569-71. 19 Iowa Environmental Council, NITRATE IN DRINKING WATER: A Public Health Concern For All Iowans (2016), Available at http://www.iaenvironment.org/webres/File/News%20%26%20Resources/Publications/Nitrate_in_Drinking_Water_Report_ES_Web.pdf 20 Brender, Jean D; Weyer, Peter J; Romitti, Paul A; et al. 2013. Prenatal Nitrate Intake from Drinking Water and Selected Birth Defects in Offspring of Participants in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. In Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 121(9):1083-1089. Available at: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1206249/. 21 Jones, R.R.; Weyer, P.J.; Dellavalle, C.T.; et al. 2016. Nitrate from Drinking Water and Diet and Bladder Cancer among Postmenopausal Women in Iowa. In Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2016. (Advance publication.) Available at: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/advpub/2016/6/EHP191.acco.pdf. 22 Backer, Lorraine C. “Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms (CyanoHABs): Developing a Public Health Response.” 2002 http://yyy.rsmas.miami.edu/groups/niehs/mfbsc/science/pdf/CynoHABs%20Developing%20a%20Public%20Health%20Response.pdf 23 Iowa Department of Public Health. “Harmful Algal Blooms Surveillance Initiative.” available at: http://idph.iowa.gov/ehs/algal-blooms


24 Frankel, Todd. “The Toxin that shut off Toledo’s water? The feds don’t make you test for it.” The Washington Post. August 11, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline/wp/2014/08/11/watching-toledos-toxic-water-troubles-with-a-wary-eye-and-few-regulations/ 25 Eutrophication is “The process by which a body of water acquires a high concentration of nutrients, especially phosphates and nitrates. These typically promote excessive growth of algae. As the algae die and decompose, high levels of organic matter and the decomposing organisms deplete the water of available oxygen, causing the death of other organisms, such as fish.” (USGS, Website, “Definition of Eutrophication,” 2014) 26 Reichwaldt, E.S., Ghadouani, A. “Effects of Rainfall Patterns on Toxic Cyanobacterial Blooms in a Changing Climate: Between Simplistic Scenarios and Complex Dynamics.” Water Res., 46 (5). Pp. 1372-1393. 2012. 27 Paerl, H.W., Huisman, J. “Blooms Like it Hot.” Science, 320, pp. 57-58. 2008. 28 US EPA. “Climate Change: Midwest Impacts.” available at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/midwest.html 29 Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans. Available at: http://cph.uiowa.edu/ehsrc/pubs/documents/Iowa%20Climate%20Statement%202014-Impacts%20on%20the%20Health%20of%20Iowans_FINAL.pdf 30 Personal communication with DNR staff person Mary Skopec, 10/21/2014. 31 Iowa Environmental Council. “Iowa State Park Beach Swimming Advisories.” available at: http://www.iaenvironment.org/our-work/clean-water-and-land-stewardship/swimming-advisories 32 “Water Works finds microcystin in system” Des Moines Register Des Moines] August 3, 2016. Available at: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2016/08/04/water-works-finds-microcystin-system/88054802/ 33 Iowa State University. Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Progress Report (2016), available at http://www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/1516progress.pdf 34 J. Gordon Arbuckle, jr., Paul Lasley and John Ferrell. Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll 2011 Summary Report. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. 35 Donnelle Eller & Christopher Doering, “Ag census finds Iowa farms are bigger but fewer in number,” The Des Moines Register. February 21, 2014. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2014/02/21/ag-census-finds-iowa-farms-are-bigger-but-fewer-in-number/5669313/ 36 J. Gordon Arbuckle & Hanna Bates. Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, Farmer Perspective on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. May 2015. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. 37 Ibid. 38 Jacqueline Comito, Joh Wolseth, Nathan Stevens and Carol Brown. Black Hawk Lake Watershed Citizen Assessment and Outreach Campaign. June 2013. Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University. Page 13&14 39 Ibid. page 14 40 Environmental Working Group, Fooling ourselves (2016), available at http://www.ewg.org/research/fooling-ourselves

Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River BasinWater Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin Sara Conrad David Osterberg Michael Burkart November 2016 The Iowa Policy - [PDF Document] (2024)


What is the problem with the water quality in Iowa? ›

Nonpoint-source pollution – runoff of soil, fertilizer and manure from agricultural land in particular – is the most significant source of water pollution in Iowa, and is largely unregulated.

What is the water quality of the Mississippi River? ›

Current Status and Research. Stretches of the Mississippi River within the park corridor exceed water quality standards for mercury, bacteria, sediment, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), and nutrients. Unfortunately, these "impairments" can make the water unsuitable for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

What is the quality of the tap water in Iowa? ›

The percentage of systems in compliance with all health-based standards in 2021 was 96.2%. There were 70 public water supplies that had 107 violations of a health-based drinking water standards, maximum residual disinfectant level, treatment technique, or action level.

Which state has the cleanest water? ›

States Ranked by Quality Drinking Water
  • Hawaii.
  • Alabama.
  • Tennessee.
  • South Carolina.
  • Massachusetts.
  • Kentucky.
  • Georgia.
  • Florida.

Why is the Mississippi river water level so low? ›

Historically low water levels on the Mississippi River cause shipping woes. The Mississippi River is a superhighway for American agricultural products, but a warm fall and extreme drought conditions have contributed to its water levels dropping to record lows.

What is the Mississippi river ranked in the world? ›

The Mississippi ranks as the fourth-longest and ninth-largest river in the world by discharge. The Upper Mississippi River is not the main stem of the Mississippi River. The Missouri River is far longer and larger than the Upper Mississippi.

Why is the Mississippi river so gross? ›

Agricultural runoff adds nutrients like Nitrogen and Phosophorus to the water system causing it to become eutrophic (nutrient rich). Eutrophication can be a natural process, however human intervention such as agriculture dramatically increases the amount of nutrients in water.

What city in Iowa has the best water? ›

This year's panel selected Cedar Rapids' drinking water as Iowa's Best-Tasting Drinking Water 2023 — for the second year in a row! The “Best of the Best Tap Water Taste Test” is a fun part of the American Water Works Association — Iowa section's annual conference.

What is the cleanest body of water in Iowa? ›

Clear Lake

Why is Iowa water hard? ›

Water in Iowa, much like its Midwestern neighbors, carries a distinct signature of mineral content. The most prevalent minerals, calcium and magnesium, characterize the hardness of Iowa's water. While these minerals are generally harmless, high concentrations can create everyday challenges in households.

What is the main problem with water quality? ›

Germs and chemicals can get in drinking water at the water's source or in the distribution system after the water has already been treated. Harmful germs and chemicals can get in the water from many sources, including: Fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals that have been applied to land near the water.

What state has the most water problems? ›

Let's take a closer look at the states most impacted by drought and water shortages.
  1. Colorado. The Colorado River Basin and its two reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have hit historic lows in the past few years. ...
  2. 2. California. ...
  3. Nevada. ...
  4. New Mexico. ...
  5. Utah. ...
  6. Arizona.
Apr 6, 2023

Does Iowa have a water shortage? ›

Parts of Iowa have been gripped by drought since July 2020. And it continues. Nearly 48% of Iowa still struggles with moderate to severe drought, and about 2% of Iowa — seven counties in northeast Iowa — is still in extreme drought, according to the Drought Monitor, which measured conditions through Tuesday.

Why is water quality getting worse? ›

Harmful Algal Blooms

In many areas, increased water temperatures will cause eutrophication and excess algal growth, which will reduce drinking water quality. The quality of drinking water sources may also be compromised by increased sediment or nutrient inputs due to extreme storm events.

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