Cleaner Iowa Water: Ripe for the Picking

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields is a major reason why water quality is notoriously poor in Iowa’s rivers, streams and lakes.

Waiting for farmers to curb that nutrient pollution voluntarily – as farm organizations and state officials advocate – isn’t getting the job done. Though many growers are doing better, too many others are not. That’s why the Des Moines Water Works filed suit recently to try to force three upstream counties to clean up the Raccoon River, which supplies the city’s drinking water.

The contamination creates real dangers. In Ohio last summer, about 500,000 residents of Toledo had to stop drinking tap water because it was fouled by toxic cyanobacteria from an enormous algae bloom in Lake Erie. The bloom was triggered by excess phosphorous draining into the lake from farm land.

One simple way to reduce nutrient pollution is to plant strips of grass – known as streamside buffers – between waterways and crop fields. The strips work well to slow and filter phosphorus runoff, stabilize stream banks and provide wildlife habitat. They’re less effective at reducing nitrate pollution, which usually comes from buried drainage pipes.  

In a report released today, “Iowa’s Low-Hanging Fruit,” EWG shows that requiring farmers to plant narrow streamside buffers would jumpstart progress toward cleaner water with minimal effects on the state’s growers Our analysis of five representative counties concludes that requiring 35-, 50- or even 75-foot wide strips would affect only a handful of landowners and cost them a minuscule amount of cropland. For example, 71 percent of landowners could meet a 50-foot requirement by planting an acre or less of their land with grass buffers.

If Iowans are serious about cleaning up the water, it’s time to mandate buffers as a basic standard of care for the agricultural landscape. Most growers already agree that planting crops right up to a stream bank is wrong. Getting all of them to plant buffers is a simple fix that’s ripe for the picking.

The question is: Will Iowa seize the opportunity?


Click on the maps below to see the waterways EWG assessed.



































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