DES MOINES - The Mississippi River is the largest watershed in the world, draining the excess water from 41 U.S. states. It terminates in the Gulf of Mexico, where pollutants congregate, creating a hypoxia, or dead, zone.
And according to research conducted by the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, Iowa is one of three states which are the biggest contributors to the nitrogen and phosphorus that leaches from farm fields, into tributaries and eventually find their way into the Gulf.
As a result, Iowa has been assigned the task of voluntarily reducing its nitrogen loads by 45 percent and its phosphorus loads by 29 percent, the vast majority of it coming from farms practicing better land stewardship.
Karl Brooks, the region 7 executive director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, based in Kansas City, Mo., spoke to 150 people on March 4 in Ames saying the voluntary compliance can work "because the EPA has identified farmers as the most flexible to changes, especially to safeguard the land's heritage."
By meeting the 45 percent goal, Iowa will be improving its own lakes and rivers, beside cleaning up the Mississippi and Gulf region, he said.
Brooks acknowledged there will be rough spots and that EPA is not automatically welcomed with open arms in farm circles..
"But this agency's underlying mission - raising food, fuel and fiber responsibly - dovetails with farmers' mission," he said.
The strategic plan for reducing nutrients into surface waters calls for a 41 percent reduction in agriculture's contribution and 4 percent in cities' and towns' contribution.
As yet, there are no federal mandates requiring farmers to implement any land management practices to reduce the nutrient loads into streams and rivers.
Brooks said EPA and other federal agencies - Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Services Agency - will work to help create innovative ways to get the job done with farmers on a volunteer basis, as they work with with state agencies.
However, the agency will be watching and monitoring progress from a distance.
Falling short of do-it-or-else rhetoric, Brooks said "using land for food is a public policy issue and it deserves the best thinking of the public and farmers."
He said the issue is as much a political solution, as it is a scientific and land management issue.
He called upon farmers and ISU researchers "to find new ways to feed people and conserve soil."
When asked if EPA will eventually mandate the 45 percent reduction of non-point source pollution, Brooks said there is currently no provision for EPA to mandate methods to meet the reduction target.
He said it's not the same as in issuing permits for concentrated animal feeding operations.
"CAFOs are considered point source polluters," Brooks said, "and there we have a job to do and we've made some decisions that are not popular with farmers."
However, this plan is for non-point source pollution, and the plan calls for voluntary compliance to reach the goal.
Ralph Rosenberg, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, led that charge at the March 4 meeting asking how long EPA will wait for substantive results and questioned the wisdom of voluntary compliance. "There are insufficient funds to hold farmers accountable," he said.
Brooks countered that although the EPA will be watching the process closely "and expect measurable progress promptly, but there is no time clock."
Expecting great strides to have been taken within the first six months, he said, is unrealistic. "It's taken us decades to get to this point"
At the same time, he said EPA sees Iowa is committed to reach the goal. "We don't think anyone is slow-walking us."
Bill Northey, Iowa's secretary of agriculture, admitted that changing the state's farming mindset wholesale won't happen overnight.
"There are 90,000 farmers in Iowa," Northey said, "we won't get everyone right away.
"There are significant numbers who will watch and figure out what will work.
"It'll ramp up as time goes by."
Northey said current federal regulations do not authorize EPA to to take regulatory action on non-point source pollution.
But it will take time, he said.
"Even if we get 100 percent compliance in one year," he said, "there is a lag time to seeing improvements on the other end."
He said year-to-year improvements will also be hard to verify. In 2012, the hypoxia zone was the smallest it's been in years, Northey said, because there was less water flowing down to the Gulf.
Catherine Kling, interim director for the Center for Agricultural and rural Development, said she thought the EPA was serious about letting states set their own courses to meet nutrient reduction goals.
"EPA is very keen to give us time to prove we can do it," Kling said. "They weren't threatening lawsuits."
Matt Helmers, an ISU ag engineer, who has taken the nutrient reduction lead for the Iowa research, acknowledged that voluntary compliance "will be a challenge, but there are reasons for optimism."
He said during 2013 winter meetings, he's heard many farmers remark they understand the need to adopt more conservation practices.
"Because they know if they don't do this," Helmers said, "the alternative is someone telling them how to farm."