A comprehensive report released by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) reveals the startling complexities and costs of curbing water pollution and why assertions that a regulatory approach is the best and only strategy are unfounded. 

“Contrasting Currents,” available at www.iasoybeans.com/ContrastingCurrents, compares Iowa’s strategies to improving water quality to those deployed in the Chesapeake Bay. As Iowans continue to debate best approaches for improving the quality of their rivers, lakes and streams, the bay is often referenced as the ideal for managing water pollution.

“Rather than take references to the Chesapeake Bay and the results of the regulations implemented there verbatim, we wanted to visit firsthand with the people responsible for implementing and abiding by them,” said Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager and co-contributor to the report.

Murphy and ISA Senior Writer Matt Wilde traveled to the Chesapeake Bay, a 64,000-square-mile watershed comprised of six East Coast states and the District of Columbia. The Chesapeake Bay Program institutes rigorous accountability measures to initiate sweeping actions to restore clean water in the bay and the region’s streams, creeks and rivers.

During their week stay in the bay, Murphy and Wilde visited with more than a dozen farmers and government and environmental officials. They also obtained insight from Iowa experts including Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey.

The seven-part investigative report found no ironclad evidence that regulations or voluntary conservation efforts are the only way to improve water quality. The series also shows there are no easy answers or quick fixes to make water cleaner and safer and underscores the need for collaboration and flexibility.

Wilde, a former agribusiness writer for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, said the team’s only directive from the ISA’s 21-farmer-member board of directors was to report the facts.

“We anticipated finding disgruntled bay area farmers who would say regulation is a severe detriment to their business and politicians and environmental experts who would exclusively sing the praises of regulation,” Wilde said.

“Instead, they explained to us that what might work in one state, township or watershed may not be effective in another due to the vast differences in population, tax base, land use and scope and scale of agriculture,” he continued. “What we heard and learned is that regardless if the system is regulatory or voluntary, it takes decades to improve water quality.”

That reality doesn’t mesh with a lawsuit recently filed by Des Moines Water Works alleging Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties allow nitrate from drainage districts to pollute the Raccoon River — a primary source water for the utility. Those who support the legal maneuver believe regulation and permits will provide a quick-fix.

ISA believes the two-year-old Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the best approach. The science-based initiative seeks to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loads in Iowa waterways by 45 percent from point and nonpoint sources.

The strategy outlines a pragmatic approach for reducing nutrient loads discharged from the state’s largest wastewater treatment plants, in combination with targeted practices designed to reduce loads from nonpoint sources such as farm fields. This is the first time such an integrated approach involving both point sources and nonpoint sources has been implemented.

Farmers are curbing nutrient loss by employing conservation practices outlined in the strategy such as wetland restoration, installing bioreactors, planting cover crops, using nitrification inhibitors, employing conservation tillage and many others, says ISA CEO Kirk Leeds.

“There are similarities and differences between issues, landscapes and watersheds in Iowa and the Chesapeake Bay,” Leeds said. “As Iowa continues to ramp up water quality efforts, it’s important to visit with our counterparts in the bay and to learn from those who are decades into their fight with decades still to go.”