Water protectors. This is the self-proclaimed term used by those who are supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their efforts to prevent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They have won at least a temporary victory with the refusal of the Corps of Engineers to grant an easement for the pipeline across lands considered sacred by the native peoples. This is a victory for the local interests and, more broadly, one small step to hold off the planet-damaging effects of climate change.
Closer to home, we need to scale up our efforts to protect our own vital water resources. Surface water quality in Iowa, our lakes and streams is far from what it needs to be. We are attempting to implement some practices to improve water quality, especially on farmland, but we are not making significant progress.
There are so many aspects to water quality that it is difficult to establish a common language and therefore have a meaningful dialogue on what should be done. Nutrients, bacteria and silt are major elements in the list of contributors to our poor water quality situation. The sources of the problems are widespread.
Excess nutrients in the waterways are a primary culprit to many. Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for Iowa farmers to grow the enormous crops of corn and soybeans that make us the envy of the world.
Excess nutrients running off our farm fields can flow all the way down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Once in the Gulf, they spur a growth of algae that flourishes, dies, decomposes and depletes the entire supply of oxygen in the water. This process creates the Gulf's "dead zone," currently encompassing about 6,000 square miles.
It is difficult to get the attention of the average Iowan about a problem thousands of miles away, regardless of who caused it. However, how would Iowans feel if some group in Minnesota did something that made a 10-county area of our state uninhabitable and devoid of life? This is the way the residents along the coast of Louisiana feel about the nutrient contributions of Iowa and other upstream states. Iowa is identified as the main contributor of nutrients of all of the states adding to the problem.
Nutrients, primarily nitrogen in the form of nitrates, also cause harmful effects in drinking water. This is the basis for the current lawsuit by the city of Des Moines Waterworks against three counties and county supervisors in the Raccoon River watershed.
Iowa has adopted a Nutrient Removal Strategy in response to the water quality issues. This is a voluntary program that encourages farming practices that will help to keep the nutrients on the land and out of the water. Cover crops planted in the fall to reduce erosion and tie up nitrogen, construction of wetlands and bio-reactors, no-till farming and more diverse crop rotation are all practices that can have an impact on our nutrient runoff problems.
The voluntary Nutrient Removal Strategy is not working. The practices that have been adopted reduce nutrient runoff at the margins but there is not enough being done to begin to address the issue. Some 400,000 acres are currently planted to cover crops. This is about 2 percent of the Iowa land currently devoted to row crops. The results are barely noticeable.
Not all practices are even moving us in the right direction. A drive through the countryside yields one instance after another where trenches are being cut across farm fields and new tile lines are being placed. This work is being done to increase yields, but it is also creating a more efficient system for getting excess nitrogen to waterways.
It is not politic or fair to place all blame on agriculture and expect farmers to bear the entire burden of cleaning up our water. But it makes no sense to act as though the issue is under control or that farmers cannot be required to take a major role in preserving and protecting our precious water resource.
Major infusions of money, technology, education and yes, regulation, are required to improve our water quality. We need to invoke the spirit, if not the tactics, of the water protectors supporting the Standing Rock Sioux.
The sacred land and water resources of this state we love are dependent on us.