Iowa Water Quality Special Report: State's millions boost monitoring, but can't stop nitrogen

More fertilizer on more acres confounds Iowa water quality plan


Iowa’s battle against farm fertilizer runoff ramped up spending to more than $500 million a year to discourage planting on marginal ground, encourage and subsidize cover crops, create hundreds of new monitoring sites and generate lots of new data. Still, Iowa’s eight-year water quality effort is losing ground against nitrogen runoff and making only modest reductions in phosphorous.

Both are fertilizers added to Iowa farm acres and lawns, as well occurring naturally throughout the state.

The annual report released in July focuses on progress in water quality monitoring, and more terraces, bioswales and field practices aimed at retaining soil and water.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said that progress is critical to the success of Iowa’s eight-year-old nutrient reduction strategy.

The goal is a 45-percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous loads, identified as key contributors to hypoxia or dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. The report shares data from point sources – mostly sewer treatment plant intakes and discharges. It also documents non-point sources, mostly field tiles and creeks that handle rural stormwater.

This year’s report shows phosphorous reductions, and documents more nitrogen being used on more Iowa farm acres, contributing to an increase, not decrease of nitrogen runoff.

A 5% increase in nitrogen loads documented in the report is driven by increased soybean and corn acres, according to report author Laurie Nowatzke, measurement coordinator and co-author of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

“If we continue to see high numbers of row crop acres, that’ll have some negative implications for water quality,” Nowatzke said.

Nowatzke is the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach researcher who assembled the report with contributions from Department of Natural Resources  water quality resource director Andrew Schneiders and Department of Agriculture the water quality coordinator Matthew Lectchenberg.

North Scott Press reporters interviewed all of the authors, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Naig, and other state ag leaders, and reviewed the report and hundreds of pages of supporting documents.

Those documents detail progress on a nutrient reduction strategy funded mostly through federal Conservation Reserve Program, which subsidizes farmers who keep production off marginal, erodible land.

It also elaborates on hundreds of millions in municipal sewer treatment financing, mostly through low-interest loans and grants. The treatment upgrades are aimed at removing nitrogen, and adding hundreds of monitors that will help pinpoint nutrient reduction efforts in the future.

Finally, the report also documents annual appropriations from Gov. Kim Reynolds 2018 water quality bill that provides $282 million in state tax dollars over 12 years, mostly to subsidize field practices, and pay for the training and promotion that encourages their use.

The authors urged patience for a long-term strategy that will require cultural, not just land use changes. All three authors concluded: Focus more on system improvements and data progress and less on nitrogen runoff reduction, which remains years away.

“We want to use our resources to incentivize, educate, and aid Iowa farmers through these new technologies to combat excess nutrients,” said Letchtenberg, of the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

“We focus more on the practices and changes in the landscape that will have the impact years after, rather than just an end date.”

The report compares funding, farm practices and other criteria with baseline data from 1980-1996. Both critics and supporters of the effort urged more focus on actual nutrient reduction, not just efforts.

Ag groups react to strategy report

The Agribusiness Association of Iowa criticized the report for estimating, instead of documenting actual nitrogen and phosphorous changes.

“This progress status is arguably the most important metric to report on as it represents the culmination of efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous losses to Iowa waters, and without it the report falls short of informing us of the key progress metrics.”

It also suggested an executive summary focused on outcomes, not process. “The report provides a large amount of information, yet no concise summary of the key progress metrics. It would benefit considerably from the addition of an executive summary.”

The report authors said they will add an executive summary next year.

The Iowa Environmental Council also said the report falls far short.

“The state has completely, and without explanation, removed reference to scenarios from the NRS science assessment,” the council’s water quality director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson wrote. “Without benchmarks and targets for the NRS, there is no other way to assess progress toward nutrient export reduction. The scenarios show how the state can actually achieve nutrient export reduction, so they should continue to be reported on, even if the outcomes are unsatisfactory."

The NRS report authors say they’re trying to address the concerns.

“A key consideration is the ability to conduct annual accounting that can be compared from one year to the next in a reliable and consistent manner. … Once a procedure is validated for estimating N and P loads from current nonpoint source practice implementation, additional assessment will be necessary to determine how frequently (e.g. annually, five-year averages, etc.) the total load should be estimated to account for annual fluctuations that may occur.”

Iowa Farm Bureau policy advisor Rick Robinson joined the call for a more succinct summary, but applauded the report’s documentation of public and private spending, and promotion efforts.

He said the report showed “$560 million in public and private funds were dedicated to INRS-related efforts in the 2019 reporting period, a 9 percent increase from the previous year. Private funding was more than $3.3 million while public funding was more than $20 million.”

He also pointed out 540 outreach events attended by 50,800 Iowans, a 6 percent increase in events and a 10 percent increase in participation.

He also urged more accounting of weather, which can impact point and off-point measurements.

Another of the report’s authors, DNR water quality resource director Andrew Schneiders, said tracking events, field practices and sewer treatment data is as important as reaching reduction goals.

“We’re trying to change conservation and wastewater treatment at a sub-continental level to meet goals in state of Iowa. In doing that, we’re trying to change Iowa’s whole conservation landscape,” he said.

“Before we see a change in water, we have to see a change in the landscape.

Before changes in the landscape, need to see change in people, and attitudes and folks planning to do these things. To change people, you need to change your inputs, and examine incentives.”

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Naig agreed. “If you just look at water quality aspects, you can look and see that phosphorous is moving in the right direction. Nitrogen? We need to do a lot of work. But when you see practices on the ground, you see an increase in nitrogen-reducing practices. The buffers, wetlands and other efforts will yield the results we are looking for,” he said.


“We need to be thinking generational. It’s taken us many decades to get where we are. It will take time to see improvements,” Naig said.