Editorial: Clean up Iowa's waterways


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Environmental activists are pushing for stricter enforcement of Clean Water Act regulations in Iowa, but Gov. Terry Branstad is determined to keep federal environmental regulators out of his state.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds wrote directly to top EPA officials in Washington in May. Their letter expressed “strong concern” with an EPA proposal to investigate livestock farms with more than 750 animals, a major source of pollution in Iowa.

Given the deplorable state of Iowa’s waterways, Branstad is obviously not doing enough to ensure that proper environmental safety regulations being met, so it is time that the federal government stepped in to take control of the situation.

According to a recent report on Iowa’s water quality by Environmental Working Group, the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organization, Iowa’s rivers and streams are still polluted more than 40 years after the Clean Water Act became law.

The analysis by the Environmental Working Group shows that from 2008 to 2011, water quality was rated “poor” or “very poor” in 60 percent of the 98 stream segments monitored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. During the most recent 36-month period studied, none of the sites had “excellent” water quality, and only one was rated “good.”

Comparing data from the first 36 months of the index condition ratings with the most recent 36 months shows that there has been no meaningful change in stream water quality since 1999 — more than a decade ago.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, only 8 percent of the nitrogen and 20 percent of the phosphorus come from “municipal and industrial discharges.” A full 92 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphorus — the two pollutants most responsible for the poor condition of the waterways — come from non-point sources, which may include excess fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from agricultural lands, bacteria and nutrients from livestock, and salt from irrigation practices. 

However, Iowa’s water-quality regulation almost exclusively targets municipal and industrial discharges, while agricultural runoff remains largely unregulated. Instead, Iowa relies on farm owners and operators to make voluntary efforts to reduce pollution.

Pollution reduction can be quite expensive, especially given the horrible state that Iowa streams and rivers are in. It comes as no surprise that funding for programs that pay farmers to take action to reduce their pollution is inadequate. In addition, the funding is continuing to shrink. Funding for the five programs that provide most of the money came to only $11.5 million in fiscal 2013, down 23 percent from the $14.9 million total in fiscal 2002.

Clearly, Iowa’s voluntary programs are not enough to clean up the state’s water. The programs need to be revamped and provided with more funding in order to be more effective. Iowa’s citizens even voted to tax themselves to provide funding for water-cleaning programs. Branstad and the Legislature should implement the Iowa Land and Water Legacy amendment, which was endorsed by over two-thirds of Iowans in 2010.

Having clean water is an absolute necessity. Water pollution from farm runoffs not only causes extensive damage to the environment and kills wildlife, but it can also sicken and kill people.

For the sake of the environment and the citizens of Iowa, Branstad needs to increase environmental regulations to reduce water pollution in Iowa or step aside and allow the Environmental Protection Agency to try to resurrect Iowa’s waterways.

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