Running water in glass

Tests of private water wells in Iowa in 2018 showed 11.75% with elevated nitrate levels, 35% with the presence of coliform bacteria and 14% containing arsenic.

When J. Gordon Arbuckle arrived at Iowa State in 2007, he learned his new job might put him into the middle of some sensitive subjects.

As a rural and environmental sociologist, he wanted to focus on how to maintain productivity in agriculture, but also wanted to see how to minimize environmental impacts.

“I remember pretty clearly I was interested in doing survey research on water quality and a couple of people, faculty members in other departments, said ‘You know, you better watch out because you might get your knuckles rapped if you do too much research,’” Arbuckle said. “The ag industry didn’t want to talk about water quality.”

But with the introduction of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013, Arbuckle said it’s been a “sea change” in the way agribusiness has engaged with water quality in Iowa.

“We’ve made a ton of progress in terms of recognizing the problem and understanding the science-based solutions to the problems we face,” Arbuckle said. “In that sense, I am encouraged and heartened about the progress we’ve made.”

One of the biggest water quality issues in Iowa is nutrient runoff, said Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, water program director with the Iowa Environmental Council.

“Overall, our biggest concern is nutrient pollution,” Anderson said. “There are definitely some public health and recreational concerns, and drinking water and source water protection concerns that come from excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways.”

According to data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, 761 of the 6,478 private water wells tested in 2018 came back with elevated nitrate tests in Iowa (11.75%). Northeast Iowa’s Delaware County led with 110 elevated nitrate tests at a 26.7% rate.

More than 35% of 2018 private well tests across the state showed positive results for the presence of coliform bacteria. While most coliform bacteria is harmless, the Department of Public Health said its presence could indicate contamination problems.

In the 3,629 private well tests that looked for arsenic, nearly 14% came back positive. Bremer County had the most positive tests for the element, with 68 private wells testing positive, but other northern counties such as Humboldt (50 positive tests) and Pocahontas (38 positive tests) had elevated arsenic levels in each of their water tests. Arsenic can enter the water supply from natural deposits in the earth, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Anderson said the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the “biggest tool” for combating one of those contaminants, nutrient pollution. Progress from the strategy is tracked by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa DNR and the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which released the annual report for the strategy in March 2019.

In it, $512 million in private and public funding was reported for 2018, with long-term funding set in place for the next 12 years. That long-term funding is earmarked for “conservation practices and wastewater treatment upgrades” over that span.

The overall goal of the strategy is a 41% reduction of nitrogen loss and a 29% reduction of phosphorus loss, according to Arbuckle.

The strategy’s focus is on reducing nutrient loads discharged from Iowa’s wastewater treatment plants and factories, working in concert with reducing the amount of runoff from “nonpoint sources,” which include farm fields.

The report called for 5-10 million acres of “nitrogen-reducing wetlands” to achieve the goal, but reports only 104,000 acres treated in Iowa.

The authors also estimate Iowa needs 10 million acres of cover crops, but in 2017 it only saw 760,000 acres. Iowa has roughly 30 million acres of farmland.

A large part of the reason for falling short of the goal is simply farmer buy-in, as Anderson said that implementation rates for conservation practices have been slowing over the five years of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“That makes sense for what you would think in a voluntary paradigm. You’d have a lot of excitement in the beginning and early adopters who are motivated to jump in,” she said. “Then it will slowly taper off as you get everyone you are going to get with the current incentives.”

She said farmers are aware of the effects of nutrient runoff, but something needs to be in place to get more people to begin adopting these practices.

Anderson said there isn’t one right conservation tactic that farmers should focus on, because different land may require different approaches.

“We aren’t advocates for a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “This is definitely something where we would work with that expertise in the state to figure out what the best targeted approach toward implementing conservation practices on the land would be.

Arbuckle said regular conservation practices, such as no-till and cover crops, can be easy solutions to helping avoid soil erosion and improving water quality.

“Not only are we polluting waterways, but we are also degrading our possibilities of the long-term sustainability of agriculture,” Arbuckle said.

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