Brown: Iowa has great earth, but deserves great water too

Phil Brown

Here in Iowa, we love our land. As a lifetime resident of this state, I am fairly confident when I say we have some pretty darn good earth.

The soil beneath our feet is used to produce an amazing amount and array of products, including over two billion bushels of corn and over 450 million bushels of soybeans every year. In addition to crops, our state is home to almost four million head of cattle and 20 million hogs.

That is quite a lot to be proud of, but such a large amount of agriculture comes with high costs.

In Iowa, we have a growing problem with impaired waterways. A waterway can become impaired, and subsequently placed on an impaired waterways list, when it fails to meet all standards for its intended uses. These uses are generally things like fishing or being used for drinking water.

In 2012, the number of impaired Iowa waterways was 628. This is an increase from 606 in 2010 and 542 in 2008, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports analyzed by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

Waterways can become impaired due to a variety of causes, including accidental fertilizer or manure spills, soil erosion, or pathogen occurrence. While heavy metal contamination, industrial pollution, and other causes can also impair waterways, it is not a stretch to conclude that Iowa’s waterways are being impaired because of agriculture.

The state of Iowa and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency would agree. In our state’s latest water quality assessment sent to the EPA, agriculture is the largest known source contributing to waterway impairment.

Agriculture relies on modern innovations which, while increasing productivity, have negative environmental effects. One of the most significant of these innovations is tiling. Fields that have been tiled have a drainage system installed underground, which aids crop production by lowering the water table (the level at which water fills all the spaces in soil). That same drainage also pipes nutrients from the soil, mostly nitrate, directly into adjacent waterways, bypassing the nutrients’ natural filter, soil.

When high concentrations of nitrate enter waterways, organisms like algae flourish. This not only increases turbidity, or cloudiness, of water, but leads to oxygen removal when dead algae decomposes. This is the same chain of events that creates the dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In all fairness, most landowners, farmers, and livestock owners in Iowa care a great deal about our state’s waterways, and would never intentionally pollute them. Many individuals have even found ways to actively combat their contributions to water pollution.

One way to accomplish this is by collecting and selling or composting manure, a common source of nutrient pollution, instead of letting it enter water systems. Another common practice is the use of riparian buffer strips, which line waterways with grasses and other non-crop plants, to reduce the amount of eroded soil that enters the water.

Despite these well-meaning individuals, violations of Iowa’s water quality standards abound. Many, such as myself, feel that this problem is only being exacerbated by Gov. Terry Branstad.

Branstad has long been a proponent for Iowa business and agricultural groups. In showing his support, Branstad has backed voluntary compliance measures for environmental quality standards. Voluntary compliance limits the ability for officials to enforce legal standards, relying instead on individuals to effectively police themselves.

This is seen by some as a way to keep government from overburdening the people of Iowa, making sure the average farmer is not punished simply for doing business. Unfortunately, voluntary compliance also asks large agricultural corporations, which already have little incentive to keep our communities unpolluted, to forfeit potential profit for the sake of the environment.

Branstad has also made sure local regulation of animal confinements does not exist. He supported House File 519, a bill passed in 1995, which stripped counties of zoning authority over industrial animal confinements.

This led to an influx of extremely large confinements, which act as an incredibly concentrated source of nutrient pollution. Such large confinements can also remove local livestock owners, who may care a great deal more about how they are negatively affecting their environment.

In the case of our waterways, Iowa does not need more protection from government regulation, as is evidenced by our horrendous water quality record. Iowa needs and deserves clean, healthy waterways, even if it means our state has to do the unthinkable and actually enforce its own lawful standards.

Phil Brown is a senior in political science, biology, and environmental studies from Emmetsburg, Iowa.