Fooling Ourselves

Voluntary Programs Fail to Clean Up Dirty Water

February 7, 2016

Fooling Ourselves: Introduction

The fouling of Iowa’s water by farm runoff is reaching levels impossible to ignore. The Des Moines Water Works got tired of waiting for state officials and landowners to take action and is suing three Iowa counties to force them to step up and cut nitrogen pollution from fertilizers that threatens the drinking water of 500,000 Iowans.

Last summer The Des Moines Register called Iowa’s water quality a disgrace as toxic algal blooms forced closure of a record number of state park beaches. In an editorial, the Register explained: “Swimming in these waters can lead to respiratory problems, skin reactions, chest pain and even liver damage. For dogs, these waters can be fatal.” Fertilizer and manure from farm fields is the major cause of toxic algal blooms.

But it’s not just Iowa’s problem. In Ohio, Toledo was forced to shut down its drinking water supply when toxic algae infested Lake Erie. Regularly occurring algal blooms are polluting drinking water across the heart of the Corn Belt and threatening Minnesota’s $13 billion tourist industry.

Agricultural interests and state officials routinely argue that waiting for landowners to volunteer to take action is the best way to clean up the water. But since 2005, USDA has spent approximately $3 billion just in Iowa to encourage farmers to step up. Yet there is no evidence water quality is improving in Iowa or across the Corn Belt.

Policy makers should ask proponents of the voluntary approach two questions:

  • After all this time and money, why don’t we see results?
  • Is this really a reliable way to clean up our waterways and protect our drinking water?