Water Pollution in Iowa: Time for Business to Step Up

Pink dots incidate where water pollution in Iowa is at its worst (EWG)

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released a report on water quality in Iowa. The DC-based NGO analyzed data from the state’s Department of Natural Resources to gauge water quality in almost 100 stream segments. The results, according to the EWG, indicate that none of the sites had excellent quality and 60 percent were in “poor” or “very poor” condition.

The report is a clarion call for Iowa’s agribusiness sector to ramp up its work to help keep Iowa’s water supply clean and not rely on taxpayers to front those costs.

According to the EWG, the problem largely stems from how Iowa government agencies have written and then implemented regulations related to land use. Developers and industries that “disturb” one acre or more must submit a plan on how they will avoid soil erosion or else face fines. But such activity only imposes 0.41 percent of the total nitrogen than ends up in the state’s environment; the amount of phosphorous is 1.5 percent of the total amount leached into Iowa’s soil.

Meanwhile, agribusiness faces no regulatory requirements, with the exception of some animal feeding operations (AFOs). Iowa’s state government has some financial incentives for the farming sector to take voluntary measures reducing their impact on the state’s water quality. Those programs, however, are limited, and in any event, they would leave state taxpayers with the bill.

The result is an overload of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Iowa’s streams and rivers, which in turn, can cause algae blooms and the growth of cyanobacteria that can cause health problems for both animals and people. And with some of those pollutants swimming downstream, what happens in Iowa has an effect on the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.”

So what can be done? The EWG points to a voter initiative that Iowa’s residents approved in 2010, that established a trust, paid by a sales tax increase of 3/8 of a cent, to conserve agricultural soils and protect water quality. But the law still has not taken effect because the state’s legislature has not passed a sales tax increase that would fund the trust’s work. And while such organizations as the EWG are quick to demand more regulations, the political reality is that state legislators are in no rush to pass more laws.

Business can step in and create incentive plans within their supply chain to decrease water pollution. Companies such as Unilever have begun to find success by incentivizing some of their contract farms to adopt drip irrigation. But with excessive nitrates causing more environmental damage worldwide–not to mention the global phosphorous shortage–large companies must realize that working with farmers is in their own best long term interest. From Iowa to the San Joaquin Valley and beyond, some of America’s most valuable farmland, as well as water supplies, are in trouble. It is time for companies to not just mandate requirements on suppliers, but work with farmers and become smarter about how we grow food.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Image credit: Environmental Working Group

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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