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MUSCATINE, Iowa — The League of Women Voters of Muscatine County hosted a discussion on water quality in Iowa Tuesday night, and a professor at the University of Iowa said voluntary action for Iowa farmers is not improving water quality.

David Osterberg, of the Iowa Policy Project and a professor in the Occupational and Environmental Health Department at the University of Iowa, spoke to gathered Muscatine area residents at the McAvoy Center at Muscatine Community College.

Osterberg presented findings of studies and polls, and said he has seen little progress in reducing nitrate and phosphorous in the Mississippi River and Iowa waterways.

One graph showed measurements of the size of the "dead zone," an area of water where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. The area is called the "dead zone," he said, because algae in the area has been fed by enough nutrients that it grows richly, and enough oxygen is consumed shrimp cannot survive.

"That is an area that has been so enriched, hasn't been poisoned, it isn't that we somehow poisoned that area, we enriched it so much that the algae bloomed and bloomed and when they died, the bacteria that ate them sucked up all the oxygen out of the system," he said.

The size of the area, looking at five year averages, Osterberg said, is not improving.

"We've got a very long ways to go," he said.

Although urban areas do contribute, the Iowa Policy Project, Osterberg said, has found 96 percent of nitrogen applied to land in Iowa is applied to corn crop, and two percent to back yards.

"Now it is true though that urban areas are part of what gets in there," he said.

One graph, with figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showed more than 80 percent of Iowa land in 2012 was farmland.

According to an Iowa State University study, Osterberg said, 91 percent of the nitrogen issues stem from non-point areas, areas where water quality management is voluntary rather than mandated, like for farmers. Cities and specified drainage sites, he said, are mandated, although they contribute a smaller percentage.

Mandates of the 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy put in place in Iowa, he said, has not decreased the nitrogen and phosphorus as much as is needed, because many farmers are not choosing to implement nutrient reduction strategies, such as cover crops.

Osterberg also said farmers are not investing in improving the environmental quality of their farms, according to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.

While requiring farmers to prevent nitrogen runoff would be difficult, Osterberg said, because no two farms are alike, he has not seen evidence that voluntary action is working.

Many residents, as well as elected officials, asked questions. Nathan Mather, recently elected to the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors, said for many Iowa farmers, the issue of water quality in the Gulf of Mexico may seem distant.

That may be the case, Osterberg said, but he showed a steep rise in the number of Iowa beach advisories in recent years due to microcystin, toxins produced by blue-green algae that also absorbs any runoff into the water system and can flourish with the added nutrients.

"This is now Iowa," he said.

The information from Osterberg's presentation as well as further research on Iowa's water quality can be found at iowapolicyproject.org.

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