As Iowa lawmakers prepare to battle again over investing hundreds of millions of dollars to improve water quality, a new and controversial debate is looming: What measurement should the state use to determine whether that spending is working?
A big part of Iowa’s efforts to improve its rivers, streams and lakes centers on farmers adopting conservation practices spelled out in the state’s ambitious Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state’s waterways by 45 percent.
But a political divide has emerged over the best way to measure the success of those improvements:
- Environmentalists, water advocates and scientists want Iowa to rely on real-time water-quality monitoring, building on the state’s existing work to measure how well the state’s conservation efforts are working.
- Farm groups prefer a yardstick that leans on counting how many acres of cover crops, grassed waterways and other conservation practices have been put in place, presuming that the more Iowa has, the better its water quality will be. Working with Iowa State University scientists and an industry-led nonprofit, they’re working on a plan to precisely track conservation gains.
The problem is that neither method guarantees that Iowa will be able to quickly figure out whether water quality is actually improving.
The reason: Farm practices that cut nitrate and phosphorus levels likely will take more than a decade to produce results in major rivers and lakes.
Iowa could invest “tens of millions of dollars” in added water-quality monitoring and “not know a lot more than what we do now,” said Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary.
Moreover, he said, money spent on monitoring would take away from conservation practice investments that help improve water.
“If we only have a certain pool of dollars, taking from one has an impact on the other,” Northey said.
But without a good measurement for success, persuading lawmakers to fund millions of dollars in water quality improvements could be a difficult sell.
Proposals to fund a major water-quality cleanup in Iowa have ranged from increasing the sales tax three-eighths of 1 cent to diverting projected revenue growth from an existing statewide sales tax for school infrastructure.
‘We’re Tired of Cheerleading’
What’s beyond the dispute is that water quality in Iowa is a serious problem: Half of the rivers, streams and lakes that scientists have assessed are considered impaired.
Environmental advocates such as Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney at Environmental Law & Policy Center, are pushing hard for real-time measurements, arguing that investing in terraces, bioreactors or other water improvement practices without such measurements risks wasting years of money and effort.
“You need to actually check the water to see if the water quality is improved,” Mandelbaum said.
Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, the utility suing north Iowa drainage districts over high nitrate levels, said agricultural leaders want to focus on measuring conservation practices, instead of water quality, to hide the state’s lack of progress.
“We’re tired of the cheerleading about minuscule gains in acres of cover crops, and ribbon cutting for biofilters,” said Stowe, who calls the volunteer Nutrient Reduction Plan ineffective, since it has no deadlines to meet its goals.
The utility seeks federal oversight of drainage districts, and indirectly, farmers.
“Data is key, and we’re not seeing that,” he said.