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Water Pollution in Iowa Impacts Dead Zone, Public Health

Tim Wagner, IWLA Agriculture Outreach Coordinator
Sediment_Tim McCabe USDA-NRCS

When it comes to agriculture, Iowa’s elected officials often like to tout the state’s ranking for food and agricultural production. Bragging rights are well deserved, considering that Iowa is #2 in the nation for total agriculture cash receipts, at more than $31 billion for agriculture products, second only behind California’s $44 billion worth of goods in 2016.

Iowa comes in as the #1 state for corn, soybeans, eggs, and corn-based ethanol. Iowa easily claims the top spot when it comes to pork production, with more than 21 million hogs, mostly in large scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). That’s about seven hogs for every person in the state!

One statistic you likely won’t hear from Iowa boosters, however, is its ranking as a leading contributor to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico – commonly referred to as the “dead zone,” which grew to the size of New Jersey in 2017. You also won’t hear about state regulators recording 742 “impaired water bodies” in 2016 – rivers and lakes that are too polluted or degraded to meet minimum state standards. The causes of impairment include excessive nitrates and phosphorous, E.coli bacteria, toxic blue green algae, and fish kills from animal waste spills. Much of it originates from farm field runoff, excessive tiling, manure spread on fields from Iowa’s more than 13,000 CAFOs, and leaking or breached manure storage facilities.

More than half of the rivers and lakes assessed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are considered “impaired,” and over a thousand more have not yet been assessed.

A multiple watershed study conducted by the University of Iowa’s hydrology department in 2018 showed Iowa’s contribution to the dead zone going up instead of down, with an average of 28.8 pounds of nitrogen per acre going into the Missouri River (on Iowa’s western boarder) and 32 pounds per acre flowing into the Mississippi River on Iowa’s eastern border.

To be clear, while agriculture is the most prominent source of water quality problems in Iowa, urban runoff is also a significant contributor. And like many environmental problems, one doesn’t need to search long in Iowa to find public health officials who are sounding the alarm bells over the health concerns with Iowa’s water quality issues.

“Tons and tons of nitrogen are flowing off our farm fields and our yards and into our primary rivers, all of it impacting the Gulf,” says Brian Hanft. As the Environmental Health Services Manager for the Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health in Mason City, Iowa, Hanft is also a data freak. So when it comes to information needed to protect the public from environmental contaminants, he is relentless in his quest for establishing a “baseline” before problems arise.

“I tell people ‘Know us before you need us’,” says Hanft. “Data is really important. I tell them, ‘Just know what’s going on.’ ”

Hanft says that when he thinks about the broader picture of the environment and public health, he knows the impacts are not just local – they’re at a national, even global, scale.

“Trying to see what we can do right here in our own little county, to see what kind of impacts we’re finding, I hope is our own little sliver of trying to impact the much broader sector,” says Hanft.

He recently had that opportunity when in 2017, a 98,000 chicken facility was proposed a few miles north of Mason City, a community of 30,000 people. The proposed location – close to residential areas and a 9-hole golf course – has been approved by the local planning and zoning board. While other approval processes were playing out, Hanft has begun gathering baseline data from the adjacent creeks, private wells, and airshed.

“Public concerns over the facility were voiced to our county supervisors, so we developed an in-house plan to do some assessments up there,” said Hanft. “We took a three-pronged approach to data collection that included surface water monitoring, groundwater testing, and air monitoring to get that baseline before the facility is built. We’ve never pointed a finger at big ag, but we needed a baseline to determine if there’s an impact after the facility is in operation,” he said.

Informing the public with information on a proposed CAFO is just one of approximately 80 different services for protecting public health provided by Hanft’s team of six and a $5.5 million annual budget. In an intensely agricultural state like Iowa, testing private drinking water wells is also one of those services, made all the more critical by the trends he’s seeing across the state.

“We do about 200 to 300 well water tests per year for nitrates, coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, and now arsenic,” says Hanft. He said his agency also monitors all of the county’s manure management plans, submitted with CAFO applications, to make sure the soil is not getting overloaded.

“Managing manure in a more concentrated form and monitoring for CAFO pharmaceuticals is a piece of this water assessment,” says Hanft. “We’re finding pharmaceuticals of various types in our groundwater supplies hundreds of feet deep,” he says. Neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides used widely on farms and in urban landscapes that has been implicated as harmful to bee populations, are also showing up in deep well assessments.

Working to protect public health has Hanft also working to make outdoor recreation more accessible to the broader population, which is why he’s actively involved with a broad coalition of public health and conservation organizations (IWLA included), businesses, and farmers working to persuade the Iowa legislature to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The Fund was passed by a statewide voter initiative in 2010, with a 63 percent voter approval, designating a 3/8 of a cent sales tax increase to fund it. It was designed to raise an estimated $185 million annually for a variety of water quality and outdoor recreation initiatives. Unfortunately, Iowa’s legislature has refused to implement the tax increase.

When asked what he tells a legislator who is ideologically opposed to more taxes or wants smaller government, Hanft’s response is simple: “We can’t afford not to fund the Trust. It’s costing us money by not focusing on the bigger picture.”

The Izaak Walton League supported the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund when it was on the ballot in 2010, and we continue to ask the Iowa Legislature to implement the Trust Fund that Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved.