Iowa water clean-up plan criticized

The Raccoon River is one of two rivers supplying drinking water to Des Moines Water Works. (Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media)

One of the first stories Harvest Public Media explored two years ago was about how farm pollutants along the Mississippi River are contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico -- an area about the size of Massachusetts. Iowa’s been at the center of this dilemma.

Now comes a new strategy, released this week by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, that looks to stop the finger pointing between point source and non-point source polluters. Point source pollution is basically a facility that empties pollutants through a pipe. Think of a waste water treatment plant. For non-point source pollution, think of  farm runoff.

With the new strategy, wastewater treatment and industrial plants would have to make costly upgrades to cut pollution; farmers would make upgrades voluntarily. 

Iowa Gov.Terry Branstad said the idea is to work together and not point fingers.

“Why is Iowa so much healthier and stronger than a lot of other states?” He asked reporters at his weekly press conference.  “It’s because of the health and prosperity of agriculture. We don’t want to destroy the opportunity for farmers to make a living on the land. We also don’t want a lot of our cities to have to dramatically increase their property taxes.”

But the strategy is already being criticized as too friendly to farmers.

Bill Stowe, chief executive officer of the Des Moines Water Works, said under the new strategy facilities like water and wastewater plants would have to make expensive changes.

“We are continuing to battle a water quality that deteriorates in Iowa,” Stowe said. “Particularly that relates to nutrients in our water ways, and thinking that voluntarily we’re going to solve that problem is whistling in the dark.”

Others are calling on state officials to push back the Jan. 4th deadline for public comment.

“I’m not saying anyone is deliberately doing it,” said Ralph Rosenberg, director of the Iowa Environmental Council . “I’m just saying the consequence of having a 45 -day period that covers Thanksgiving, that covers the holidays – Christmas, Hanukah, New Years – is really limiting.”