December 20, 2014

Iowa Ag Secretary says voluntary approach faster path to improved water quality

A final version of the state’s latest strategy to reduce nitrogen run-off into Iowa lakes, streams and rivers has been released. Supporters like Iowa Department of Natural Resources director Chuck Gipp say the voluntary plan is the right approach.

“Whether you’re big or small, rich or poor, urban or rural, you need to understand as an individual that what you do on your property has an impact off your property and if we don’t all collectively — whether it’s federal, state, local or individuals — become a part of the solution, all we’re talking about today is just more talk,” Gipp said during a recent appearance on IPTV. “Everybody’s got to understand what they do has an impact.”

Critics like Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe say volunteer efforts aren’t working now and won’t work in the future.

“I’m not particularly optimistic,” said Stowe, who joined Gipp as a guest on IPTV’s “Iowa Press” program. “We have data over 40 years that shows the degradation of water quality in both the Des Moines and the Raccoon River.”

The Des Moines Water Works has been recording “historic” levels of nitrates in the two rivers this spring, prompting the utility to use its filtration equipment or tap into a nearby reservoir to ensure its water is safe to drink.

“The nutrient reduction strategy in our view is more of the same. The same is not working,” Stowe said. “We need leadership on this. We’re very concerned that we’re not seeing the tone of leadership at the state level that we would like to see. Clearly the next step, in our view, is federal intervention on this issue.”

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey expects a “large amount” of farmers to voluntarily accept the recommendations outlined in the state plan.

“If we actually were working on a regulatory process, we’d have legal battles. We’d have all kinds of rule-making battles. I think we’d be five or 10 years away from getting the first work done in a regulatory process,” Northey said Wednesday during an interview with RadioIowa. “We need to get at this right now.”

And Northey said by making it voluntary, farmers can choose which strategy works best on their land.

“None of these things work on every farm. None of these things work with every farmer’s situation, so we need to give those farmers options and encourage them strongly to adopt one or two of those practices on each of their farms,” Northey said.

Gipp said there’s a reason this year’s nitrate levels are higher.

“We had a dry year last year and therefore the yields weren’t as great with that crop and therefore it left nitrogen in that soil matrix that normally would have been taken up into the crop that’s harvested and because of in this particular, so that’s why you see the spikes you have today,” Gipp said.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the state’s attempt to respond to concerns about a so-called “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2008 federal officials called upon the 12 states that border the Mississippi River to draw up plans to reduce nitrogen run-off into the river.