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Getting to the nonpoint: States pursue new strategies to protect water quality, with an increased emphasis on preventing nutrient runoff from farms

by Tim Anderson ~ September 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Hundreds of miles downstream from the farm fields of Iowa and the municipal water systems of Wisconsin, an enormous toxic “dead zone” continues to plague the Gulf of Mexico. This year, the zone — unable to support aquatic life due to an overgrowth of algae that sucks up all the oxygen — was measured at 6,474 square miles, bigger than some states.
All of the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution that enters the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana contributes to this environmental, and economic, problem.
What is the solution?
Science-based assessments show that in order to eliminate these dead zones, nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico needs to be reduced by 45 percent.
“It’s going to take much more than a tweak here and a tweak there,” Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig says about meeting that goal. But that is the objective that his state has set under its nutrient-reduction strategy, which came from Iowa’s long-standing involvement in the Hypoxia Task Force: a state-federal partnership working to shrink the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.
Other task force members include five other Midwestern states whose water flows into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf: Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
But if the solution is to cut nutrient levels by 45 percent, how does a state reduce its water pollution by that much?
Russ Rasmussen, water division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says his state has already picked much of the “low-hanging fruit.” A mix of government policies and technological advances has greatly reduced levels of point-source water pollution (from municipal water systems and industries, for example).
Because of those advances, over the past few decades, the amount of phosphorus entering Wisconsin waterways has fallen — a 23 percent decline in the Mississippi River Basin, and a 27 percent drop in nutrient loads for Lake Michigan. But 45 percent (the phosphorus-reduction goal in Wisconsinl) is still a long way off.
To get there, Iowa, Wisconsin and other states will have to curb nonpoint sources of water pollution as well, particularly the runoff that comes from agricultural operations.
Ideas to cut nutrient pollution
In the 11-state Midwest, there are close to 670,000 farms and more than 310 million acres of land devoted to agricultural production. That is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of farmers to get involved in plans to reduce nutrient runoff and improve water quality.
“What we ultimately need [to reach the 45 percent goal] is to have practices implemented at a large scale across our state,” Naig says.
“There is an awareness about the importance of the issue,” he adds, “and our farmers also come from the perspective that this is a freedom-to-operate issue. If we don’t do the things to make less of an impact on the environment, we’re going to then have regulation come down the road.”
The alternative in Iowa, at least for now, is a voluntary, incentive-based approach known as the Water Quality Initiative. State legislators launched the program three years ago and have been putting more money into it ever since — up to $9.6 million in the current fiscal year.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the state is getting close to starting a program (based in part on legislation passed last year, SB 547) that will introduce a form of “water quality trading” between point and nonpoint sources of pollution within the same watershed.
Those are just two examples of the approaches being taken in the Midwest to enhance water quality and management. Under the regional Hypoxia Task Force, each state was asked to develop its own nutrient-reduction strategy to improve the health of the Mississippi River Basin.
In the Great Lakes, meanwhile, Michigan and Ohio, along with the province of Ontario, have pledged to cut phosphorus loads in Lake Erie by 40 percent over the next 10 years. (Indiana has not joined this collaborative agreement.)
This June 2015 announcement came close to a year after a harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie temporarily cut off the drinking water supply to Ohio residents living in the Toledo area.
Ohio lawmakers also passed a measure this year (SB 1) that targets reductions in nonpoint source water pollution — for example, new restrictions on when fertilizers are applied in the western Lake Erie watershed. In Minnesota, meanwhile, a new law (part of this year’s SF 5) will require the use of vegetation buffers on an estimated 110,000 acres that are adjacent to the state’s lakes, rivers, streams and public ditches.
It will take time, and water monitoring and assessments, to tell if these new state investments and policies are making a difference.
“We’re spending significant dollars on this in Iowa,” Naig says about the Water Quality Initiative, “so you want to make sure they’re being deployed in a way that actually improves water quality.”
Other states will be watching as well, in some cases all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

A look at Iowa’s new voluntary approach
Iowa’s involvement in the Hypoxia Task Force helped lay the groundwork for its Water Quality Initiative.
But a dispute among some of Iowa’s own local governments is a reminder that pollution isn’t just affecting the water hundreds of miles downstream.
Earlier this year, the water utility for the state’s largest city filed a federal lawsuit against three nearby rural counties that manage water drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works says these districts are responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water to Des Moines-area residents.
The utility wants government regulations to deal with the nonpoint source pollution from agricultural operations, just as federal Clean Water Act rules already control point sources. (Nonpoint runoff has been exempted because of the difficulty in determining where contaminants come from as water moves over or through the ground.)
“This has ramifications all across the country,” Iowa Sen. David Johnson said about the lawsuit during a presentation this summer to fellow lawmakers at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.
The lawsuit pits rural areas against urban communities, and raises the possibility of future regulations on farmers.
“We want to [protect water quality] with voluntary efforts,” Johnson said.
The Water Quality Initiative reflects that approach, but it does require some buy-in from the state’s agricultural producers. This year, 1,800 farmers (whose operations cover 187,000 acres) submitted applications to take part in Iowa’s cost-share program. In turn, the state will provide $3.5 million to help these producers start or continue one of four practices to prevent nutrient runoff: the use of cover crops, nitrification inhibitors, and no-till or strip-till farming.
Through this initiative, too, the state is funding demonstration projects in targeted watersheds. Iowa’s local soil and water conservation districts run these projects, with involvement from multiple farmers and other stakeholders.
“The idea is to work intensively in that geographic area, for more rapid adoption and to get a higher percentage of farmers to participate,” Naig says. “Then we can learn from the experience and transfer what we learned to other watersheds. What incentives work? Who are the right messengers? What were the costs and benefits?”
Farmers already have some built-in incentives to join the state’s voluntary initiative — wanting to protect local water resources, avoiding future regulations and controlling costs.
“Farm inputs are expensive,” Naig adds, “so they don’t want to apply a pound more [of nutrients] than they need to grow that crop.”
Still, obstacles can stand in the way of participation, whether they be up-front costs (even with the state’s cost-share) or the unknowns associated with trying a new nutrient-reduction strategy.
“The most credible messenger for talking about these practices is a farmer, a farmer who has experiences with them,” Naig says. “And that is why we are trying to get that farmer-to-farmer interaction.”
New buffer requirement in Minnesota
While Iowa invests in different strategies to prevent nitrogen and phosphorus from leaving the land and reaching waterways, a new law in Minnesota focuses on one specific practice: the use of vegetation buffers.
These buffers are a proven way to filter out nutrients and keep them from reaching a water body. And in Minnesota, they will now be required along all of the state’s lakes, rivers, streams and public ditches.
The Legislature’s decision to require the buffers came after a series of studies and governor-led summits highlighted a decline in water quality across the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen said during a presentation to fellow legislators at this summer’s MLC Annual Meeting.
For lakes, rivers and streams, the size of the buffer will have to be an average of 50 feet in width. Around public ditches, the strip of vegetation must be a minimum of 16.5 feet.
“The primary controversy [during this year’s legislative debate] was that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy,” Hansen said.
As a result, the state allows for other practices in lieu of installing a buffer, but those alternatives must offer the same level of protection to the surrounding water body.
Minnesota’s soil and water conservation districts will implement the new buffer requirement, provide technical assistance to landowners and track progress under the new law. But much of the funding will come from the state and its Clean Water Fund, which was created seven years ago when Minnesotans approved an increase in the sales tax. (The state also plans to help landowners access federal funds through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.)
In Wisconsin, a possible ‘win-win’
In Wisconsin, an influx of new dollars may soon be available to fund projects that prevent nonpoint source pollution. And this money will come from point sources: the state’s municipalities and various industries (paper mills and cheese plants, for example) with permits to discharge pollution under the Clean Water Act.
It is a type of “water quality trading,” and is the result of a rule promulgated by the DNR in 2010 as well as legislation passed in 2014.
That 2010 rule set numeric limits, based on a water quality standard, on how much phosphorus can be discharged into Wisconsin’s rivers, streams and lakes. For many point-source polluters, meeting this new standard would require the installation of expensive new treatment systems.
To address these concerns, Wisconsin legislators passed SB 547 in 2014. This law not only gives the state’s municipalities and industries more time to comply, it also gives them additional options. By seeking a “multi-discharger variance,” for example, a point-source polluter could more gradually reduce its phosphorus limits; in return, it would have to fund projects in the same watershed that reduce nonpoint sources of pollution.
“You avoid having to install a multi-million-dollar filtration system, where it might cost up to $1,000 for each pound of phosphorus reduced,” Russ Rasmussen of the Wisconsin DNR explains. “On the nonpoint side, to get the same reduction, it may cost only $30 or $50, so you’re reducing greater levels of phosphorus for less money.”
Federal approval of this “trading” system is still required. But Rasmussen has high hopes for the program once it is up and running.
“It’s a win for the industry because they have time for planning and for the technology to get cheaper,” he says. “It’s a win for the people putting in the nonpoint programs, and it’s a win for the people in the watershed because we’re reducing much more phosphorus with this program than without it.”