Iowa leaders have been dithering too long

You’ve got to hand it to people along America’s Gulf Coast who support their families as commercial shrimpers and fishermen.

They certainly are patient.

For the past 25 years, the challenges they face in finding an adequate supply of shrimp and fish have grown larger and more expensive.

And Iowans are a key factor in this problem.

A huge area of the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of the southern United States is so depleted of oxygen that it cannot sustain marine life.

This lack of oxygen --- the phenomenon is called hypoxia --- kills shrimp and fish, or stunts their growth and impairs their reproductive capabilities, and forces the creatures farther out into the Gulf to survive.

All of that makes it more difficult to make a living as a commercial fisherman.

The experts call this oxygen-deprived area a “dead zone,” for obvious reasons. This year, scientists have measured the largest dead zone since the environmental mapping began in 1985, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

The 1988 mapping found the zone to be about 15 square miles in size. This year’s survey found the dead zone to be 8,775 square miles --- a region slightly larger than the state of New Jersey.

The culprit behind the dead zone is excessive pollution, most coming from agriculture. Specifically, the blame falls on fertilizers that wash from farm fields and lawns, on livestock wastes that wash into streams and rivers, and on human sewage that is not adequately treated by cities.

The Mississippi River is the funnel that carries these pollutants into the Gulf of Mexico. Once they reach the Gulf, the nutrients in the pollution stimulate massive growth of algae that consumes the oxygen the shrimp and fish need.

This record-setting dead zone is one reason the spotlight will be on the Iowa Legislature when the 2018 session begins on Jan. 8. For too long, Iowa political leaders have been unwilling to tackle head-on the state’s key role in the dead zone.

For too long, we have heard that Iowa’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy is solving the problem. But it is obvious, judging by the record size of this year’s dead zone, that voluntary action is not adequate.

While Iowa leaders have dithered, the economic problems for commercial fishermen have magnified.

“The dead zone is taking its toll on us,” Thomas Olander, chairman of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, told reporters in that state last month.

“If we don’t get some kind of clean-up here soon, we’re not going to have a future. We must have this pollution stop immediately.”

Iowa farmers don’t want the government forcing them to deal with their fertilizer and manure issues. They don’t want to pay higher taxes to finance remediation efforts.

Many of them are reluctant to eat into their incomes by voluntarily planting cover crops or by protecting and planting buffer strips along streams and rivers to absorb runoff. Iowa farmers prefer to address these problems whenever and however they want.

But can you imagine what the reaction of Iowa farmers and livestock producers would be if problems created in other states and carried into Iowa were harming agricultural businesses here at home?

If Iowa were on the receiving end of these problems, would our farmers and livestock producers think that voluntary actions alone in the responsible states would be sufficient?

Would Iowa’s political leaders and members of the Legislature sit by quietly while Iowa farmers and ranchers suffered economically from these out-of-state problems?

No. They certainly would not.

Iowa politicians and farm leaders would be demanding action on the sources of these out-of-state problems. They would want corrective steps to be taken now by the states responsible for these problems.

Therefore, it’s just common sense that Iowa lawmakers and Gov. Kim Reynolds need to end the charade that Iowa’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy is an adequate way of addressing the environmental problem wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s what Iowans would want --- and rightly so --- if the roles were reversed. And it’s understandable that this is what commercial fishermen on the Gulf Coast expect from us.

It’s time to act, Iowa.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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