Slow progress

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

The State of Iowa released its annual report this week on progress with its voluntary nutrient reduction strategy to surface waters. Most of the 60-plus pages detail the amount of funding ($16 million per year from public sources, not including the Conservation Reserve Program and other “baseline” conservation programs in the farm bill), the efforts at public outreach, the organization of new levels of bureaucracy in each watershed, and the demonstration projects put in place.

What the report lacks is a detailed analysis of data sampling from rivers and streams — which is readily and abundantly available from public research sources in Ames, Des Moines and Iowa City — but instead it models total nitrogen and phosphorous loads from point (sewer plant effluent) and non-point (agricultural) sources. Total loads appear to be increasing.

Yet we know from monitoring by the Des Moines Water Works and the University of Iowa that the Raccoon River is averaging a nitrate load that is about twice the recommended level by the UI College of Public Health (5 mg per liter), and teeters regularly over the federal suggested limit of 10 mg per liter. Other rivers are twice as bad, including the Floyd River that merges with the Missouri at Sioux City.

Statewide, five-year averages of nitrate levels are increasing, according to UI research.

That’s because farmers are not adapting conservation strategies fast enough, according to the state report compiled by Iowa State University, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

We need to see about 60-70% of acreage planted in a cover crop. We are at about 3%. It’s about 2% in Buena Vista County. Likewise with every other scheme to hold back nitrate and phosphorous, from bioswales to buffers. The adaptation rate is not sufficient.

Surveys by ISU show that two-thirds of Iowa farmers who rent are eager to participate in soil stewardship programs but their landlords aren’t. Ethanol production remains concentrated on corn and there is little effort to convert to alternative cellulosic feed stocks as corn-based plants are struggling as it is. There is no enforceable standard for manure management, and the state can’t even keep track of the producer-filed plans.

In short, we are not making that much progress unless you consider progress to be how you are measuring it and how many pages of a report you can type while avoiding the obvious: We are stalled in improving Iowa water quality. That’s because the strategy revolves around propping up the unsustainable corn production model predicated on planting in an oil base with a deteriorating, and increasingly drained, soil complex that has nearly been exhausted in 150 years.

You can’t expect the chemical and fertilizer industry to write and implement a strategy that is patently against their commercial interests.

Iowa will make real progress when we come to grips with the fact that we cannot continue to farm fencerow to fencerow, applying more chemicals every year, and expect a different result despite a new mini-marsh along the Des Moines River. We need a different approach to the landscape — embraced by groups like the Iowa Farmers Union and the Practical Farmers of Iowa — that builds soil health, brings cattle back onto grass in an integrated rotational program, and puts the prosperity of farmers and rural communities over the interests of the ag supply chain woven by giant chemical companies.

IF YOU REALLY want to learn more about the history and science, we recommend reading a blog by Chris Jones, a researcher at the University of Iowa, who details the history of how our overload of fertilizer developed, and how difficult it is to achieve balance.

One quote:

“Scientists already had a basic understanding of the processes driving stream nitrate by the early 1970s. But we really have made little progress in solving the problem, and in fact it may be getting worse. Five-year running annual average nitrate loads may have increased as much as 77% since 2003. I would characterize this as driven by three interconnected factors: continued expansion and upgrade of the constructed tile drainage infrastructure, ineffective management of manure nitrogen inputs, and increasingly wet weather across most parts of Iowa. As we move forward in implementing existing strategies and devising new ones, we would do well to review how we got to this place.”

And another:

“In trying to improve water quality, we know for the most part what works, and how well it will work, with a fair amount of confidence. But, things are changing all around us because of natural phenomena and human decisions … Simply cataloging implemented practices in a ledger and calling it good is not going to cut it, if our objective truly is to improve water quality. Going forward, we need to have the courage to confront the realities of the challenge we face as state. If we don’t, then we will continue to be frustrated by the pace of improvement.”