Iowa’s waterways are in worse condition than most of us realize.

A study by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources earlier this year said as much, although the implications of its technical findings were difficult for nonscientists to understand. 

To bring the issue into clearer focus, Iowa Public Radio’s Ben Keiffer recently hosted three University of Iowa water quality experts on his “River to River” noon-hour program. 

A transcript of Keiffer’s July 8 program shows how bad the situation is.

David Cwiertny, professor of civil and environmental engineering, began by explaining Iowa has roughly 3,000 identifiable waterways when you count all lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands. 

For roughly half those waterways, he said, there is virtually no water quality monitoring. But roughly half of the remainder, about 750 waterways, are impaired and only 15 currently meet all criteria for drinking, swimming and fishing. 

“That is an abysmal number,” Cwiertny said. 

When a waterway is impaired for nutrients, sediments or bacteria, “you have to create a plan for how to solve the problem,” said Silvia Secchi, who teaches geographical and sustainability science. 

But not farmers. When it comes to agriculture, she said, “the Clean Water Act has no teeth,” and there are few meaningful plans. “We can go after municipal facilities and industry, but we can’t do anything to address problems that come from agriculture.” 

Worse yet, said UI water research engineer Chris Jones, Iowa has no numeric standards “for nutrients in streams that protect aquatic life” from fertilizer and pesticide runoff. 

There are standards for drinking water, he said, but if water is not used for human consumption  there are no protections against runoff that benefit fish and other forms of aquatic life.

Because of the power of the farm lobby, he said, “the state has resisted doing that.”

“If we did have standards for nutrients that protected aquatic life, we basically could impair every body of water in the state,” Jones said.

“We need to change the mindset that this is just a Gulf of Mexico problem,” Cwiertny said, referring to the “dead zone” off the coasts of Louisiana, Texas and Florida where decades of farm runoff have created massive areas with no aquatic life.

“It’s a city of Des Moines problem,” Cwiertny said. “Smaller communities are also seeing their drinking water become less reliable.” 

Iowa relies on farmers to voluntarily work to reduce water pollution, but that has not accomplished much, all three UI experts said. 

Eighty percent of Iowa’s land is in agricultural production, with more than 20 million hogs and nearly 4 million cattle concentrated on fewer sites than was the case in the past, they said. 

“It’s not any one farmer,” Jones said. “It’s not any one crop or any one practice” that causes the problem. “It’s the scale and magnitude of what we are doing on the amount of land we have. 

“We have a continental scale problem,” he said. 

“We’re relying on the altruistic instinct of people to solve this, and the evidence is just not there that it will work.”

“Carrots do not work without the threat of a stick,” and the stick is missing, said Secchi. 

A couple of years ago, she said, the Storm Lake Times’ Tom Cullen reported that 80% of government money set aside for conservation practices in one program “was returned because there were no volunteers.”   

Monitoring programs have not kept up with the problem, Cwiertny added. “The Safe Water Drinking Act hasn’t been nimble enough to keep up with science in terms of what we know about health effects.” 

“We need to be able to … monitor and regulate inputs,” Jones said, referring to fertilizer and pesticide use.

To do that will require political pressure, said Secchi, who noted: “Less than 3% of Iowans are farmers, but 100% of Iowans live here and drink the water. 
“Iowans have been conditioned to think this is necessary to our economic system, but it absolutely is not,” she said.