Are environmental activists, like the Environmental Work Group (EWG), playing an elaborate shell game to denigrate Iowa’s voluntary water quality improvement strategy and build public support for one-size-fits-all regulations?

Sure seems that way.

In slick reports and sound bites, the activists seem to cherry pick data to back their arguments. They select time lines to make it appear that farmers are doing little about water quality and soil loss. And perhaps worst of all, they bend basic agronomic facts to push for mandatory regulations.

A prime example is the EWG’s recent report called "Fooling Ourselves: Voluntary programs fail to clean up dirty water." The report, as the title infers, works to show that Iowa’s programs are a complete failure and regulations are necessary.

A problem with facts

But the facts the EWG uses don’t really bear that out.

First, the group chooses only two conservation practices — stream buffers and grassed waterways — out of the dozens in the state’s water quality strategy. Then the EWG says that in a three-year period, there was a net loss of 74 acres of buffers within 75 feet of a stream bank.

Might sound like a lot, until you consider that the loss is only about less than half of 1 percent.

A second problem is the monitoring period chosen by the EWG: 2011 through 2014. The report fails to mention that the ambitious Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, launched in mid-2013, had just started to build momentum by the end of 2014.

And it neglects other key statistics, such as the fact that Iowa farmers have 885,385 acres enrolled in the continuous, targeted Conservation Reserve Program (including stream buffers), more than any other state. The number increases almost every month and is up 222 percent in the past 15 years.

Finally, the EWG report cites the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over nitrates in the Raccoon River to establish context for its report. However, farmers use the stream buffers and grassed waterways to reduce loss of soil and phosphorus.

They have little to do with nitrates.

These facts are conveniently ignored in the EWG report. But it’s just the kind of thing a group would do in a shell game.