Activist: Water strategy is inadequate

‘It should be more watershed focused’

FORT DODGE –Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is failing, and should be altered to make more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Instead of the current strategy, water quality improvements should be focused to specific areas that are of highest concern, said Steven Falck, senior policy advocate at ELPC’s Des Moines office.

“It should be more watershed focused,” Falck said. “Any money we put to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, we should target the worst watersheds and start there, instead of putting this money that goes everywhere.”

A watershed is an area of land that includes all of the farmland, homes, factories and every piece of land that drains into one lake, river or stream, he said. Iowa is divided into 56 large watersheds, each of a different size.

“Every square inch of Iowa is in a watershed,” said Falck.

Falck was visiting multiple newspapers this week to talk about the work his organization and others do in Des Moines, advocating for changes at the Statehouse.

Two water quality bills are currently being debated, he said. One is in the Iowa House and the other in the Senate. Although his organization prefers the House bill, Falck said neither one makes significant changes to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and neither one has the funding level needed to truly make a difference.

“This is by far not enough money that is being raised. But our problem is whatever amount of money we do raise and put into water funding, it’s going through a failed framework,” Falck said.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was created three years ago, he said, but there was no bill or legislation that passed it. It was written by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, with Iowa State University providing scientific information, which Falck said is sound.

The strategy called for a 45 percent reduction in nutrients reaching waterways.

But a reduction by when?

That’s one of the problems, Falck said. There’s no time frame indicated in the strategy.

The strategy is also completely voluntary, hard to monitor accurately, and there’s no baseline, he said.

“There’s a lot of gaps, there’s no timeline, there’s not accountability. This is not the right strategy to put any money through,” said Falck.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s 2016-2017 report has been released. It estimates there are more than 600,000 acres planted in cover crops, though Falck said it’s hard to get an exact number since farmers don’t have to report to anyone.

But Falck said to get the reduction called for in the strategy, that’s only 6 percent of the needed acres. Iowa needs 10 to 14 million acres planted in cover crops, he said.

“Basically when you drive out in the country, every other field should be green with cover crops,” he said. “That isn’t happening.”

That amount of reduction would also require about 138,000 bioreactors along the edge of farm fields, and 6,000 to 7,000 new wetlands. Iowa currently has about 20 bioreactors and about 82 of these wetlands, Falck said.

The ELPC estimates that over 20 years, this would cost $280 million for the cover crops, $1.38 billion for bioreactors and $3.3 to $3.9 billion for the wetlands.

Focusing on the watersheds where improvements are needed most would make better use of the limited dollars the state has, Falck said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation “has 20-year strategy about building roads. And they have a commission that decides on that strategy. Can you imagine if it was left up to the legislature to decide where to build roads?” Falck asked. “Our road system would be a mess, and the legislature recognized that. They said, it’s not up to us, we’re going to create this commission and hold them accountable for the millions of dollars they spend to build roads.

“We should have a water commission, that will take these resources, taxpayer money, and hold them accountable to how it’s being spent.”

Policies should be locally-led and flexible to address local issues, he said. There also must be goals and benchmarks to measure progress.

Falck also serves on a panel which holds forums on confined animal feeding operations and water quality. He spoke about the proliferation of hog confinements in the area.

“The big issue there is with the master matrix is outdated. The DNR doesn’t have enough funding to do a proper job,” he said.

“In places like karst topography, fragile landscape, there should be no CAFO allowed or given a permit.”

There are bills in the legislature that would allow counties more local control over CAFO sites, Falck said. Another bill would outlaw CAFOs on karst ground, and a third would lower the threshold for regulation on a manure management plan to kick in.

His goal is absolutely not to hurt the pork industry or to put a stop to CAFOs, Falck said.

“Obviously the pork industry in Iowa is very important,” he said. “It’s important to Iowa’s economy… There is a way you can care for the environment and have a thriving pork industry together.”

For more on the nutrient reduction strategy visit Find the 2016-2017 report under “strategy documents.”