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Farmers Work to Shrink Dead Zone

posted on February 14, 2014


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Five years ago, The Environmental Protection Agency called on states along the Mississippi River to develop strategies reducing nutrients in a lifeless portion of the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Dead Zone.

The Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan established a target of cutting the total nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the Gulf by at least 45 percent.  Despite the lofty goal, a dozen states in the Mississippi Basin are only beginning to comply. 

Iowa, on the other hand, has moved beyond studies and implemented its own plan. EPA officials acknowledged progress in the Hawkeye State this week. But they also noted since only a fraction of Iowa’s farmers are participating in the effort, there is still much work to be done.  

The main cause for low oxygen levels in the Dead Zone can be traced directly to upstream polluters. While there are several sources of nitrate and phosphorus pollution that can be linked to the 12 states making up the Mississippi River Basin, agriculture typically gets the black eye.

In order to keep the federal government out of the nation’s farm fields, a bridge of sorts is being built between agriculture and Capitol Hill. Many states have plans to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus run-off but only Iowa has taken the next step by establishing its own Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The plan caught the eye of Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Regional Administrator Karl Brooks.

Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator, EPA Region 7: “In fact, it's important to emphasize in Iowa, that the state's nutrient reduction plan has checked off more boxes than any other of its states in the Mississippi Basin right now. One good thing about the Iowa Plan, is instead of just running around, corner to corner in the state, scattering money all over, there was a real focus on priority watersheds. Ones that we know there has been nitrogen and phosphorus loading that is too high, ones that have real erodible and ones where we know that we can make a difference.”

Brooks, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey took their show on the road this week spending time talking to journalists and Certified Crop Advisors.

Sec. Bill Northey, Iowa Department of Agriculture: ”We need to show momentum. We need to show that people are engaged. And engaged in a way that is very different that if it were a regulatory environment. In a regulatory environment we would fight about it in court as long as we could. and we'd fight about the rules for as long as we could, and then we'd tell farmers what to do and all they'd care about is complying. They wouldn't care about water quality they'd worry about staying legal with the government.”

In its initial year, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy handed out $2.8 million in matching funds to a little more than 1 percent of the state’s 90,000 farmers. The money will be used to plant cover crops, install bioreactors and build wetlands. Scientists will collect data and use it to demonstrate that it is possible to clean up waterways while cutting on-farm expenses. The goal is a 45 percent reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus washing into thousands of miles of Midwestern waterways every year.

Chuck Gipp, Director - Iowa DNR: ”Because it's their pond, it's their stream. It's a little bit distance to say how that  impacts the gulf of Mexico because Iowans is a long way from Louisiana. But it's important to know that this also improves their local water body. Because people want clean water, and water quality is a big issue across Iowa and the nation, we need to get people to understand they can be part of solving this issue by being careful about what they do on their own property.”

The plan’s stakeholders believe complete adoption of the plan may take up to 25 years.

There are, however, those who believe the hand of government is the only means by which farmers will reduce nutrient run-off.

Bill Stowe, CEO, Des Moines Water Works: “You fix it by, first of all, admitting that it's a problem. and you throw to the side that self-regulation or volunteerism is going to improve it in any meaningful way in an acceptable time period.”

Bill Stowe is CEO of The Des Moines Water Works, a municipal agency providing drinking water for half-a-million central Iowans. Last year, after attempting to mix water from several sources to comply with EPA nitrate regulations, Stowe was forced to turn on the world’s largest nitrate removal system costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It had been six years since the system was last put into use.

While Stowe has threatened legal action to get EPA enforce standards outlined in the Clean Water Act, Brooks believes an environment of volunteerism is a better choice than government legislation.

Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator, EPA Region 7: “We've been a constructive player. I think this agency is viewed as being somebody that is constructive and engaged instead of threatening and standing outside the room with a club in our hand to come in and start laying waste to Iowa. That's not how we see our job at all.”


Tags: Bill Northey Bill Stowe Chuck Gipp dead zone EPA Region 7 Iowa Department of Agriculture Iowa Department of Natural Resources Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Karl Brooks The Des Moines Water Works

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