The number of Iowa's lakes, rivers and streams that are impaired due to some level of pollution has climbed 15 percent in two years, according to a new state report, prompting environmental groups to say the state's efforts to reduce pollution aren't working.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to report 725 impaired water bodies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this summer; the last time a report was filed in 2012, there were 630 impaired waterways. States must compile impaired waters reports every two years under the Clean Water Act.
Two of the most frequently cited problems for rivers and streams are bacteria and fish kills, largely the result of manure spills or waste storage leaks from large-scale hog or cattle operations. For lakes, the most commonly identified impairments are excess algae, too much suspended sediment and bacteria — all of which indicate the presence of human or animal waste. Algae blooms in particular occur with large concentrations of nitrates and phosphorous from manure on farm fields or leaking septic tanks or industrial and city waste treatment plants.
Iowa's robust agricultural economy — leading the nation in pork and egg production — presents a challenge dealing with manure generated by more than 20 million hogs and 60 million chickens, although the flock in the last month has shrunk by 40 percent from a deadly strain of bird flu. It's also tops in corn production, a crop that needs an abundance of nitrogen fertilizer to maximize yields. Yet, the nutrient can leach into rivers, causing high nitrate levels. It also can leach into lakes, contributing to toxic algae blooms.
Gov. Terry Branstad, Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp have said the state's voluntary nutrient reduction policy is working and farmers need more time to implement the practices, such as no-till farming, use of grass strips in fields and planting cover crops after harvest to reduce erosion and to help alleviate runoff of fertilizer and manure.
But environmental groups including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said the report shows the state's voluntary strategy is failing.
"Branstad has said in earlier comments that our water is getting cleaner, that's just not true," said Larry Ginter, a family farmer and Iowa CCI member from Rhodes. "Shame on any of Iowa's leadership that continues to mislead the public about the crisis state of our waters."
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the governor's commitment to water quality is demonstrated by his budget proposal to spend $57 million on it over two years.
"Gov. Branstad believes that through collaboration with farmers, producers and commodity groups, Iowa can continue to advance its water quality initiatives," he said.
Iowa CCI and the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project have requested for seven years that the DNR force farms with frequent manure spills to get federal Clean Water Permits, improve inspections and increase the use of fines against repeat offenders.
EIP attorney Tarah Heinzen said the report shows Iowa could do a better job of regulating farm runoff and spills on livestock farms by issuing permits "which the state has consistently refused to issue to hog confinements in particular regardless of whether they've had fish kills or other spills."
DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said more impaired waterways do not prove things are getting worse but that it's a result of increased monitoring.
The report will be presented to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission at its monthly meeting next week, posted for public comment until July 2 and submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.