Every year like clockwork, as sure as spring rains come, so does a flood of innuendo about Iowa’s water quality, misleading Iowans. The one-sided narrative isn’t just disingenuous; oftentimes it’s flat out wrong. The biased coverage deceives Iowans and paints a picture that’s not backed by proven science or data.
The tonality of water quality coverage shouldn’t be surprising. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that nearly six in 10 people say journalists are purposely trying to mislead by saying things that they know are false or grossly exaggerated. News media today know divisiveness and negativity stir emotion and pique the interest of their audience. While stoking conflict is profitable for media whose success is measured by generating clicks, comments, and shares, it’s a disservice to Iowans seeking facts about an issue important to all of us.
The work on water quality is not done, but we can take pride in the collaboration and long-term conservation efforts underway. For example, Iowa farmers have restored more than 400,000 acres (that’s 300,000 football fields) of wetlands, which on average, prevent 52 percent of nitrates from reaching our water.
You likely haven’t read in your local newspaper that Iowa leads the nation in reduced tillage acres with 10.11 million acres, according to the USDA Ag Census. Reduced tillage leaves in place at least 30 percent residue after planting, which improves soil health and holds it in place, effectively reducing erosion. In the 30-year period from 1982-2012, Iowa’s erosion rate on cropland was down 26 percent, according to the USDA. That improvement was prior to the 2013 adoption of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS), when Iowa’s cover crop acreage was estimated at only around 10,000 acres per year, another huge fact showing improvement that’s regularly omitted.
I’m sure you’ve spotted bright green growth in rolling farm fields across the state this spring, long before farmers started planting their 2021 crop. Those deep-rooted cover crops, planted following last year’s harvest, anchor into the ground and keep the nutrient-rich soil on the farm and out of the water and improve soil health.
From 2012-2017 no state saw a higher percentage increase in cover crop acres than Iowa. During that five-year period, Iowa farmers increased cover crop acres by 153 percent. Cover crops are shown to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from farm fields by nearly one-third. In 2019, Iowa farmers planted more than two million acres of cover crops, a 36 percent gain from just two years prior.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water monitoring site provides water quality trends by watersheds over time, and you will find most untreated, raw river water nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are lower than the EPA finished/treated drinking water standard for nitrate of 10 parts per million (PPM). However, Iowans are being told through media coverage that our drinking water poses a health threat.
Research from state and federal natural resource agencies, academics and researchers tells the true story that farmers are embracing targeted, site-specific or watershed-focused conservation yielding results. Before you buy into claims about Iowa water quality designed to enflame and divide, I encourage you to dig deeper and feel good about the facts and data showing Iowa farmers are national leaders in innovative conservation practices and know progress is being made.
With naturally nutrient-rich soils and variable weather conditions, farmers and cities already face several natural, often uncontrollable obstacles to quick and easy water quality improvements. While the one-sided media reports on the topic might generate buzz, they are not moving the needle for achieving our shared goal.