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Forum Participants Sound Off Over Water Quality Issues At Blue Water Festival

Sun 8-12-2018

(Arnolds Park)-- Funding for water quality projects and Iowa's voluntary nitrogen reduction plan were a couple of the main topics experts sounded off on at a forum during Saturday's Blue Water Festival at Arnolds Park.

Among those arguing that the state's voluntary nitrogen reduction plan is making a difference was Sean McMahon, Executive Director of the Iowa Agricultural Alliance...Sean McMahon 

"You know eight years ago there were only maybe about 10 thousand acres of cover crops that were cost shared in Iowa and then this last fall we had 760,000 acres in total. So is that enough cover crops? Absolutely not. You know we really need to scale this up. But we have made exponential progress just in the last eight years, going from 10,000 acres to 760,000 acres. That's a phenomenal increase. But if you look at the entire state of Iowa's row crops, 23 million acres, we're only at 3 percent of all those row crop acres. We'd actually like to see between 12 million and 17 million acres of cover crop."

But Cindy Lane of the Iowa Environmental Council says the voluntary isn't working and that not nearly enough is being done...Cindy Lane 

"Recent research has shown that instead of reducing our nitrate loads that are coming out of Iowa, because all of the nitrogen reduction strategy, right, is to address gulf hypoxia downstream, that we need to reduce it by 45 percent and instead from 2003, I believe, 2003 to 2016, IHR researchers have found that our nitrate loads are increasing by 47 percent. Increasing by 47 percent, and they need to be going down."

Bruce Trautman, acting director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said he feels the voluntary effort is working...Bruce Trautman 

"I'm not going to sit here and believe for one minute that voluntary conservation doesn't work, if you do the right things and if you have the right people and if you take the watershed approach and if you have people upstream and downstream working together. It works. I'm not going to apologize for the work that's been done in the past, but I'm not going to say we're done."

Mary Skopec, Executive Director of Lakeside Lab, said the impacts of climate change are only going to complicate matters when it comes to run-off...Mary Skopec 

"We're getting highly leachable situations where the nitrogen, the phosphorous is leaving these systems in a much more rapid way than it has in the past, and so I'm a little bit nervous about using 19th century kind of numbers and 20th century numbers and looking at the 21st century and 22nd century. We need to be thinking about what our rainfall patterns are going to be, what's tolerable with six inch rain storms in March and April when we don't have landscapes that are protected, those soils are much more vulnerable now than they were even 50 years ago."

A water quality funding bill that was passed in the last session of the Iowa Legislature was another major topic of discussion. David Osterberg, an environmentalist and a former state legislator, says the bill fell far short of what is needed...David Osterberg 

"As long as you say we can't do anything unless we take away from schools, and you're never going to get very much money. Therefore I think the process ought to be that let's decide that we're serious about doing something about water quality and then let's put some money into it and let's put a tax on fertilizer where it ought to be. You know polluter pays." 

Bill Stowe, Superintendent of Des Moines Water Works, was also critical of the measure...Bill Stowe

"Sprinkling money around the state for ribbon cuttings with the Governor or with the Secretary of Agriculture cannot demonstrate to you, as somebody who has paid for those, that there is actually a benefit, an environmental benefit, and whether the tax is a 6 percent sales tax or whether it's IWILL, there's a fundamental issue in my view about whether we know how to effectively spend public money." 

Joe McGovern, President of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, says the $2 million included in the funding bill falls far short of what is needed...Joe McGovern 

It can't do anything, it's just not enough. They put 2 million this year in it. 2 million. We did a project on Big Spirit that cost $1.6 million, we did it all with private money. One project was 1.6. So they're going to spread that over the state. So I just think we deserve way better than what we saw out of 512. We had a chance to do much, much more and that was what we got out of this session. Very disappointing."

Saturday's water quality forum lasted about two hours.