September 11, 2000
Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Action Plan (4503F)
c/o U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20460
Dear Mr. John Wilson:
Following are joint comments of the Iowa Cattlemen?s Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association, and the Iowa Soybean Association on the Draft Plan of Action for Reducing, Mitigating and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
The above groups represent Iowa?s leading agricultural commodity associations with over 20,000 members that live and work within the great state of Iowa, one of the leading agricultural states within the Mississippi River Basin. Our members, their families, their communities and affiliate business and industry will be directly impacted by future policy?s relating to EPA?s Draft Plan of Action for Reducing, Mitigating and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
Based on the Draft Action Plan and the information leading to it, it is clear that the primary states impacted by a targeted nutrient reduction strategy in the Mississippi watershed are Illinois and Iowa, since they have been identified as contributing as much as 35% of the nitrogen loading to the Mississippi River. We believe, based on this same information, that the social, economic and environmental impacts of a broad nutrient management reduction policy is "unclear."
We agree that Iowa's water resources are valuable. Besides being natural assets, our rivers, lakes, and groundwater benefit food production, recreation, human consumption, and industry. Clean water matters to all segments of society.Our comments about the draft action plan are as follows:
We agree that nutrients from agricultural land and from other nonagricultural sources can impact water quality locally and downstream. However, regulatory actions could have profound economic impacts on Iowa farms. Like any other landuse endeavor, agriculture impacts the environment. These impacts can be mitigated with improved management, but they cannot be eliminated. We should take note of past history and the challenges associated with ?command and control? approaches. We oppose strategy that coerces our states to support policy that may have enormous economic implications. We believe that opportunities exist to improve nutrient management, and we are supportive of policy that enables agriculture to do better.
Historical Experience and Challenges of Loading Limitations The concept of establishing a loading limitation on receiving waters to achieve improvements in water quality is not a new way of thinking. This idea is rooted in the water quality standards and discharge permitting approach. We recognize that the Draft Action Plan is stating the N reduction is a ?goal? and not a discharge limitation to reach a water quality standard in the Gulf, but we believe that this approach sets the stage for establishing discharge limitations. Nevertheless, this policy approach parallels closely the Total Maximum Loading approach for achieving water quality standards and attempts to apply the approach on a macro scale which includes drainage from 31 states.
This approach has history back to the standard setting and effluent limitation procedures of the 1965 Water Quality Act. Further, the application of the approach used under the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act for point source discharges is now expanded by looking at all pollutant sources and applying the same methodology of limiting discharge from non-point source pollutant generators. Under this approach permitting authorities (i.e. the states) issue permits that limits allowable discharges of pollutants into receiving waters.
Past experience by the states in implementing the 1965 Water Quality Act identify three primary challenges associated with using a system of effluent discharge limitations. The first was related to difficulty in determining how much each individual source must cut back their discharge in order for the predetermined water quality standard to be met along a whole river basin. It is relatively easier to model point source discharge limitation because of the known information on the pollutant load. However, credible data associated with non-point source pollutants is a major limitation in designing a model to allocate loading limitations to meet water quality standards. The credibility and the lack of data present significant challenges to meeting a nutrient reduction goal. Often the capacity of states to take the time and invest the resources in developing good working models is prohibitive when compared with other priorities states face. Further, it is unclear who is to bear the tremendous costs associated with application of such a methodology.
The second reason that this approach was considered challenging involves the enforcement of individual discharge permits when water quality standards were not met. The key problem was in establishing a legally satisfactory way by which one or more discharges could be held responsible for not meeting the water quality standards. This bears the question of what happens if the goal, as suggested in the Draft Action Plan as a reduction goal, are not met.
The third reason for viewing the system as challenging concerns the variability of policy application among the states. States vary in their commitment to pollution control objectives, in the talent of their personnel, in the resources they can make available for implementation, monitoring and enforcement, and their willingness to resist temptation to establish lenient regulatory environments for business expansion.
The above historical challenges are important lessons to consider as the Mississippi River/ Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force members consider adoption of an Action Plan that makes implementation practical by 31 states in the Mississippi River Basin. Questions that need to be considered include, "Does agreeing to a national goal, with reduction policy, begin to usurp powers that were previously left to the states? Does not agreeing to the national goal, with reduction policy, threaten states' ability to receive federal funding?"
The answers to these questions begin to illustrate the politics, better labeled as coercion, involved between some federal agencies and state governments.
Scientific Uncertainty and Technical Limitations
To date, the best science we can turn to is the series of six reports issued by the politically appointed Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR). Although the CENR study points out important insights into the need for better understanding of nutrient and landscape management, it is clear CENR writers point out several limitations in the scientific understanding of Hypoxia as well as related impacts associated with various action strategies. Without better scientific understanding, and direct illustration of the economic benefits from reducing nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico, we are skeptical of supporting policy that may have tremendous costs unfairly imposed on the economy of Iowa. We expect that Mississippi River/ Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force members would be hesitant to agree to such a policy as well.
Support of Long-term Goal 1c and the Iowa Improving N Management
Our organizations already maintain policy positions that are supportive of the long-term goal labeled option 1.C as stated in the draft action plan; To pursue practical, cost-effective efforts by all states and tribes within the basin and all categories of sources to protect the ecological and fisheries resources of the northern Gulf of Mexico by reducing nutrient over-enrichment. Within Basin Goal -- to restore and protect the waters of the 31 States and tribal lands within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin and their aquatic ecosystems in order to protect public health and aquatic life, as well as reduce negative impacts on downstream waters. Quality of Life Goal -- to improve the communities and economic conditions across the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin, in particular the agriculture, fisheries and recreation sectors, through improved public and private land management and a cooperative, incentive based approach.
We believe that through sound public policy and economic common sense, concerns over excessive nitrogen loading can be tempered. Interestingly, Iowa has a rich history in working with agriculture on nitrogen management issues. This history has helped Iowa farmers use less nitrogen fertilizer. For instance, in 1985, Iowa farmers planted 13,900,000 acres of corn, producing 126 bushels per acre for a total production of 1,444,800,000 bushels. At that time farmers applied an average of 145 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre to produce this yield. In 1998, Iowa farmers planted 12,500,000 acres of corn, taking vulnerable land out of production with the aid of federal conservation reserve program. The average yield in 1998 was 145 bushels per acre for a total production of 1,769,000,000 bushels. The average rate of nitrogen fertilizer had declined to 127 pounds per acre. Thus, 22% more corn was produced on 10% less land, using 24% less total nitrogen fertilizer.
The above data was collected since 1985 and analyzed by Iowa State University. It illustrates that Iowa farmers are doing a better job of nitrogen management. Corn yields have been maintained and actually increased over the past fifteen years, while more judicial use of N has occurred. Why is this case? First, farmers have economic rationale for using N management that is agronomically optimal. Over application of N fertilizer that is not used by the crop increases production costs. Secondly, since the late 1980?s, Iowa has engaged in educational programs that help farmers improve management of nitrogen. Many of these programs were a direct result of state funding that came out of the passage of a landmark 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. This legislation specifically established a voluntary educational approach for agriculture to work on water quality and resource management. Examples of state programs include Integrated Farm Management Demonstration Program, Model Farms Demonstration Project, and Watershed Protection Fund. Various themes of these past programs were essentially reauthorized during the 2000 state legislative session as Iowan?s, farmers and public, recommitted themselves to do an even better job of input management, addressing impaired waterbodies and leveraging federal funds to enhance programming. This cost -effective public and private partnership is in-line with a ?win-win? philosophy and as such is why we are supportive of Option 1C.
In summary, our organizations representing the key Iowa agricultural commodities of corn, soybeans, and cattle are committed to protecting water quality by supporting public policy that is economically fair and scientifically valid. Given the scientific uncertainties expressed through the CENR study, it is clear that consensus does not exist on the cost and benefits from proposed solutions. With the absence of such consensus we believe that the Mississippi River/ Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force members should agree to a long-term goal that builds upon our previous successes as well as provides additional capacity to states as they continue to implement cost effective strategies to protect and improve water quality.
Iowa Cattlemen's Association
Iowa Corn Growers Association
Iowa Soybean Association