WasteWatch2024: Iowa

Iowa, set in the Midwest’s flat plains, is a top producer of corn, cattle, and hogs. Being a major leader in agricultural production brings challenges. Notably, nitrate and phosphorus runoff, pesticide contamination, sedimentation, industrial and urban runoff, as well as PFAS contamination.

Moore Halfon and Russell Schmitz, Head of R&D for 374Water, met this week to discuss the environmental impacts on a local spill into Iowa water streams.

The basics on Iowa:
Life Expectancy – 77.5, 20th in the nation
Population – 3.201M
Land Area –  55.89 sq mi
Water area – 419 sq mi

Main Environmental Challenge:
Agricultural pollutants (excess nutrients, pathogens, and pesticides) are picked up by runoff into watersheds. These pollutants contaminate water sources and destroy aquatic habitats. Applying manure from nearby fields is common in Iowa, which leads to more excess nutrients in waterways. Moreover, many of the state’s wetlands and prairies have been plowed to make space for farms. Without these natural habitats to filter water and retain the topsoil, pollutants from the land easily find their way into Iowa’s lakes and rivers.

Organizations advocating for the environment and water:
Iowa Environmental CouncilIowa Natural Heritage FoundationIowa Waste Reduction CenterIowa Department of Agriculture and Land StewardshipIowa Agriculture Water AllianceSoil and Water Outcomes FundIowa Rural Water Association

Environmental journalists to follow in Iowa:
Perry Beeman
Brittney J. Miller
Isabella Rosario

Environmental News (articles in the comments):
– Over 7,000 private wells contaminated with nitrate. (Circle of Blue, 2023). 
– Delaware Co, pop. of 18,000, has seen nitrate levels in wells as high as 60 mg/L, 6x the EPA’s safe drinking water level (The Gazette, 2024). 
– Iowa occupies 4.5% of land area in the Mississippi Basin, but contributes to 29% of the nitrate and 15% of the phosphorus polluting the Gulf of Mexico (Outside, 2023). 
– 721+ water body segments in Iowa fail to meet quality standards for recreation, public water supplies, and aquatic life (Iowa Capital Dispatch, 2024).
– 1,000 miles of rivers and streams and over 59,000 acres of lakes, ponds, and wetlands have been damaged by agricultural pollution (Food & Water Watch, 2024).
– Iowa farms use more weed killers and apply more commercial fertilizer every year than any other state (Des Moines Register, 2024).

Next Steps:
With 92% of the nitrogen and 80% of phosphates in Iowa’s waters coming from farms and animal feedlots, the state should require regulations mandating more efficient use of fertilizers to reduce the amount entering water bodies in runoff. Also, pesticide management should be enforced to prevent chemicals from seeping into the soil and groundwater. In conjunction with regulations, the state should consider investing in technologies capable of properly treating and removing chemicals and excess minerals entering Iowa’s water sources from agricultural runoff.