When officials at the Iowa De­­partment of Natural Re­­sources (DNR) recently re­­leased a report showing an in­­crease in impaired waters in the state, environmental activists dove in head first.

Predictably, they claimed that the sky is falling. They pointed threatening fingers at agriculture. And they trashed the state’s groundbreaking water improvement strategy, even though it’s been endorsed by the federal En­­vironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and copied by other states.

But perhaps they jumped in just a little too early.

As Rick Rob­­inson, Iowa Farm Bureau Fed­­eration en­­vironmental pol­­icy advisor, noted in a report, understanding what causes rivers and streams to be called "impaired" is a complex and subjective process. Impairments, which were up 15 percent over the last report, are not always a good indicator of water quality issues.

The increase in impaired streams comes primarily from additional monitoring, including monitoring for what’s called "indicator" bacteria in small, rural watersheds. And the DNR says it’s getting more data now because people in those watersheds are stepping up to get better measurements so they can work to improve the water.

More monitoring

It doesn’t mean that there are more impaired streams than before. The report really indicates that Iowa is doing a more thorough job of water quality monitoring, according to the DNR. And much of that, Robinson said, is because farmers and others in the watersheds are taking more readings.

The list of impaired waterways also tends to grow rather than shrink because once a stream gets on the impaired list, it’s complicated to remove it no matter how much work is being done to improve water quality, Robinson said.

One of the primary ways to address the impairments is to gather farmers, landowners and others in a watershed to draft a watershed improvement plan called total maximum daily load (TMDL). There are 126 water bodies previously on the impaired waters list now that have approved TMDL watershed plans, and are eligible to be removed. The DNR is currently asking that 73 more be removed for a variety of reasons, such as new data or improvement plans in development.

Another complication with the list is that the EPA standard for indicator bacteria has been set at levels designed for public swimming, even though beaches are rare to non-existent in most of these small, very rural watersheds. The DNR says it’s almost impossible for these watersheds to achieve the standard. But the agency is doing studies to apply a more appropriate standard.

It’s a slow process, and it’s using precious limited state re­­sources where they might be better used for higher priority watersheds and impairments.

In the end, it’s clear that the increase in impaired waters has almost nothing to do with dirtier water, as the activists claim. Instead, it’s caused by additional monitoring, the application of an inappropriate water quality standard and the fact that it’s hard to get waterways off the list once they are on.

The DNR’s impaired waters list, Robinson concludes, underscores the importance of targeted, effective solutions like Iowa’s water quality initiative, the EPA-endorsed Nutrient Reduction Strategy. As we continue to see around the state, more and more farmers are seeking solutions to reduce loss of fertilizer, save soil and improve water quality. In every farm meeting these days, conservation is top of the agenda.

More than talk

It’s a lot more than talk; farmers are putting up real money to improve water quality.

Farmers, along with local co-ops, implement dealers and others, already combined more than $11.8 million in their own funding with more than $7.5 million in state money and are making progress. Research shows that nitrate levels in Iowa’s streams and rivers have stabilized — and slightly declined — in recent decades.

Making long-term improvements in Iowa’s water quality will require a plan like the state’s water quality initiative that relies on collaboration, cooperation and investment, as well as research to find new and promising technologies. It won’t happen overnight, and it’s clear that pointing fingers and jumping to conclusions without the facts is only going to delay real progress.