Benchmarks and accountability needed to clean up Iowa's waterways

 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids

As they are with the stagnant national political climate, Iowans are growing weary of the debate over Iowa’s water pollution problem. Sadly, if fatigue drains public interest, common sense could be silenced and those who support the agriculture industry’s continued self-regulation without accountability will win.

Iowans need to stand together and insist lawmakers and policymakers act now.

Sensible laws limiting water contamination, holding agriculture landowners and renters responsible for the pollution they cause, and implementing plans for cleanup are required and long overdue. Voluntary measures will continue to have little impact.

While public discussion about what can be and needs to be done about Iowa’s fouled water was elevated last year, little has been accomplished. And, the General Assembly appears poised to let another year pass without taking significant action.

Every day Iowa’s water becomes more polluted with toxins discharged by the agriculture industry. These agrotoxins endanger public health, degrade the environment and threaten our state’s future. While it has been estimated the agriculture sector represents one-third of Iowa’s economy, protecting water is vital. For decades the needs of industry have been placed ahead of people and planet — the financial interests of the few trump the health and well-being of the many.

Agricultural production in the U.S. impacts water, soil, air, wildlife and human health has been estimated at a cost of $5.7-16.9 billion per year and few if any of these costs are borne directly by industry.*

In 2015 alone, Des Moines Water Works spent $1.5 million in operating costs to denitrify water largely polluted by agricultural tile drainage discharge. The costs of denitrification must be paid by ratepayers. Iowans are right to ask whether it is fair for taxpayers to be responsible for paying the costs of cleaning up industry’s pollution.

This summer more public beaches will be closed due to toxic algae blooms created by farm pollution, more Iowa waterways will be added to the 725 already designated as impaired for uses such as swimming and fishing and water utilities across Iowa face taking emergency measures to meet the standards imposed by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, our state policy for reducing nutrient pollution, remains voluntary for those involved in the agriculture industry, landowners and those renting the land alike. This toothless initiative lacks timelines for pollution reductions, plans for implementation, local watershed goals and mechanisms for funding the cleanup. Bold action is necessary to restore our rivers, lakes and streams. However, to achieve real progress, any water quality proposals or plans must include three key elements.

1. Stop pollution where it starts. Law and policy must ensure that all water discharged into public waterways — regardless of whether from farm, industry or municipality — meets acceptable, permitted limits, tailored to protect public health.

2. Include a sustained funding mechanism binding incentives to permanent behavior change. All plans must include basic standards of care for all agriculture businesses — tailored to the landscape for maximum benefit.

3. Include accountability measures in order to establish long-term duties to protect our shared environment. The plans must include a timeline for pollution reductions goals, benchmarks to assess progress, local watershed goals and enforceable environmental protection duties. This means scientifically verifiable water quality data must be collected, analyzed and reported, and made readily available to the public.

Governor Branstad and Iowa’s legislators have it in their power to act, but doing so means standing-up to powerful agriculture industry leaders. Tell the Governor and your other elected representatives it is time they stand with and for you. Saving Iowa’s water for Iowans is more important than protecting a powerful industry political group.