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Iowa Environmental Council warns of slow NRS progress

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Passengers on the Channel Cat get a close-up view of construction on the new I-74 bridge, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, from the Mississippi River.

The Iowa Environmental Council warns that the state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is progressing far slower than anticipated and needs mandatory reductions, according to an analysis published Tuesday.

Begun in 2013 to combat the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in Iowa's waterways, the NRS is a response to the 1997 Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force established to coordinate efforts to reduce the size, severity and duration of hypoxia — a lack of oxygen — in the Gulf of Mexico. Bodies of water that have low oxygen cannot sustain marine life.

"Overall, what we found in this analysis is that the implementation rate is quite a bit slower than what you would expect to see," IEC Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson said during a conference call Tuesday. She compared the current rate to attempting to bail out a boat with a Dixie Cup. "You're making progress toward getting some of the water out of the boat, but you're not really going to achieve that in a timely fashion to keep your boat from sinking." 

The IEC's report, "The Slow Reality of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy," is based on analysis of the NRS's "Scenario 1," which calls for a maximum return to nitrogen; 60 percent of farm acres to use cover crops; 20 percent of agriculture lands to be treated with wetlands; and 60 percent of drain land to be treated with bioreactors.

The IEC estimates that at the current rate of reduction, it will take approximately 93 years to reach the cover crop goal, 913 years to reach wetlands goal and approximately 3,103 years to reach compliance with the bioreactor goal.

Gronstal Anderson said the issue with a voluntary policy is that there will be early adopters and then a tailing off of that interest, which she says the data shows. "There's been a lot of good work put into NRS, there's science behind it, but we wanted to take a look at the policy behind it and say, 'How can you increase these implementation rates to a degree that would actually see significant water quality improvements?'"

Mandatory participation would see everyone take responsibility for the problem and participate in the solution, plus it would help to even the playing field for all farmers, Anderson said. "Right now, you have people who are implementing practices at an extra cost to them and that could put them at a disadvantage to their neighbors who choose not to participate. So we think that this is a way for a more equitable structure."

IEC Water Policy and Advocacy Specialist Alicia Vasto noted the analysis uses 2017 numbers due to that being the last analysis completed by the state. The analysis set goal numbers by calculating the acreage of cover crops described in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

To read the report, visit iaenvrionment.org.

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