In early 2018 the Iowa Legislature took a step in addressing Iowa's water quality with a plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent.


It seems like Iowans have feuded over water quality since farmers began draining the swampy prairie more than a century ago to turn it into some of the most fertile farmland in the world.

On Tuesday, legislators agreed to send the governor a bill committing $282 million to water quality initiatives over the next 12 years, breaking a gridlock that had stretched over three sessions.

But what's all the fighting really about?

Here's what we know about Iowa's long-running problem with contaminated water:

What's the harm? 

Runoff from farmland, caused by storms and tiling, is sending nitrates and other chemicals into Iowa's waterways, which cause a host of problems downstream.

Elevated nitrates in drinking water — a persistent problem in Iowa — have been linked to a host of health concerns, including birth defects, cancers and thyroid problems, dozens of health studies say.

READ: Nitrates in the water may be more harmful than we thought

Some environmentalists and outdoor advocates also complain that the water quality is threatening Iowa's rivers and lakes. They worry that it is provoking harmful changes to fish and wildlife.

READ: The North Raccoon: A river of controversy and undiscovered beauty

READ: Farming, environment tug of war on North Raccoon River

How bad is it?

But is Iowa's water quality really that bad?

Well, that depends on whom you ask. But the short answer is — it's not good.

A Register analysis of available research shows that nitrate levels in Iowa's major rivers have more than tripled since the 1950s, but have slightly declined in recent decades as farmers' awareness has grown.

READ: The real story on nitrate levels in Iowa's rivers


Limnologists and educators from the state hygienic lab use an electric generator to shock and count fish during a biological assessment on the Volga River in late summer.

Regardless, nitrates are causing headaches for municipal water utilities downstream, such as the Des Moines Water Works, which says it spends millions of dollars every year cleaning nitrates from the drinking water.

READ: High nitrate levels plague 60 Iowa cities, data show

Water Works sued three upstream drainage districts in 2015 for allowing too many nitrates to leach off farmland into rivers and streams. The utility lost the suit in March 2017 after a judge said the drainage districts couldn't be held responsible for the runoff.

But the nitrate problem isn't confined to cities. Small private wells also have serious issues with contaminated water and high nitrate levels.

READ: Danger lurks in Iowa's well water, testing shows

So what can Iowa do?

A few years ago, Iowa adopted a Nutrient Reduction Strategy to try to get a handle on its water quality issues. The plan seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state's waterways by 45 percent.

The state has focused on financial incentives and voluntary compliance from farmers to cut nitrate and phosphorous levels so far. Critics argue that compulsory requirements are necessary if Iowa wants to get serious about improving its water quality.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Iowa can't even agree on how to measure whether its initiatives are working, which begs the question of whether the state can realistically achieve its goals.

READ: Can Iowa improve its water quality if it can't agree how to measure success?

In the meantime, more and more farmers are voluntarily adopting conservation measures such as buffer strips along streams and more strategic applications of fertilizer to curb runoff.

READ: How do we fix Iowa’s nitrate pollution?

The question is, will that be enough?

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