Iowans Could Have Cleaner Water With One Simple Rule

Iowans Could Have Cleaner Water With One Simple Rule

Use of grass buffer zones between crop fields and streams could help improve Iowa's water quality.

Requiring farmers to plant 50-foot wide grass strips, or buffers, between cropland and streams would jumpstart progress toward cleaning Iowa's dirty water while affecting only a handful of growers and a minuscule number of acres, a new report from the Environmental Working Group shows.

REQUIRE BUFFERS? Advocacy group EWG has studied 1,700 miles of streams in 5 counties in Iowa, using aerial photography. Requiring the use of buffer zones could get the state two-thirds of the way to its goal for reducing phosphorus pollution and one-fifth of the way to its target for reducing nitrogen pollution.

The report, titled "Iowa's Low-Hanging Fruit: Stream Buffer Rule = Cleaner Water, Little Cost," examines five representative Iowa counties to assess the impact that a statewide streamside buffer requirement would have on pollution, landowners and farm acreage. "Iowa's waterways have long been polluted with fertilizer and manure that runs off farmers' fields and into nearby streams," EWG states in a press release it issued on February 3. "Phosphorus pollution in the runoff can cause major problems for human health and aquatic life and is a primary cause of Iowa's chronically poor water quality."

Pressure is growing in Iowa for the state to clean up its water
"Overloading waterways with phosphorus sets off the kind of toxic algae blooms that left half a million people without drinking water in Toledo last summer," says Soren Rundquist, EWG landscape and remote sensing analyst and co-author of the report. "Algal blooms also keep Iowans from enjoying the outdoors, especially in summer when polluted water often makes fishing, swimming or paddling unpleasant."

Streamside grass strips are very effective at keeping phosphorus out of waterways and also helps somewhat to reduce the nitrate pollution that threatens drinking water supplies across Iowa, he says. Most nitrate pollution is discharged from buried drainage pipes under crop fields, which circumvent buffers.

Click here to read the full report, "Iowa's Low Hanging Fruit: Stream Buffer Rule = Cleaner Water, Little Cost."

Advocacy group is pushing for mandated buffer zones in Iowa
Under the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy which came into being in 2013, the state promised to cut phosphorus pollution by 29% from so-called non-point sources, mostly farm operations. The new EWG report has found that implementing the simple practice of placing buffer zones between cropland and waterways could achieve two-thirds of Iowa's goal for reducing phosphorus pollution.

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"Enacting a buffer standard is a simple, effective and easily verified way to get to cleaner water faster than what Iowa is currently doing," says Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources and also a co-author of the report. "Iowans have been waiting far too long to get results from the solely voluntary approach promoted by farm organizations and state officials."

People are tired of being asked to wait, wait, wait for clean water
Pressure has been growing in Iowa to clean up its water, says Cox, "with much of the focus on agricultural operations to adopt more soil conservation measures that would reduce the runoff from fertilizer and manure that can overload streams and rivers with nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants."

Using high-resolution aerial photography and geographic information systems to evaluate the impact of imposing a buffer requirement, EWG analyzed the Iowa counties of Allamakee, Hamilton, Linn, Plymouth and Union. It determined that:

Meeting a 35-foot requirement would affect only 8% of landowners. Of those affected, 85% would only need to convert an acre or less of cropland;

Requiring a 50-foot buffer would affect only 11% of landowners in the five counties, and 71% of them could meet that standard by converting a single acre or less;

Even implementing a 75-foot standard would affect only 13% of landowners, with 54% able to comply by converting a single acre or less.

"I think most landowners would agree that planting crops right up to stream banks is just wrong," Rundquist says. "A streamside buffer standard would protect the good work many landowners are already doing."

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