Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa

Chuan Tang, Gabriel E. Lade, David A. Keiser, Catherine L. Kling, Yongjie Ji, Yau-Huo Shr
February 2018  [21-SR 116]

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Tang, C., G.E. Lade, D.A. Keiser, C.L. Kling, Y. Ji, and Y.H. Shr. 2018. "Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa." Staff report 21-SR 116. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University.


Iowa agriculture provides tremendous benefits to the state, national, and global economy. The intense nature of the state’s agricultural activities is not without cost. Agricultural industry is a large contributor to water quality problems both within the state as well as in downstream rivers, streams, and the Gulf of Mexico. First released in November 2012, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) lays out a technology-driven framework for reducing nutrient delivery to waterways in Iowa and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. These efforts are part of a broader strategy that includes 11 other states to reduce the size, severity, and duration of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. While the Gulf Hypoxic Zone has received a lot of attention, meeting the NRS targets would also have large local benefits. Many water utilities and homes with private wells must treat their water due to high nitrate levels. In a recent court case, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) unsuccessfully sued three Northwest Iowa drainage districts to compensate for its nitrate removal costs. According to DMWW, the utility spent over $500,000 to remove nitrates in 2016 and plans to expand its nitrate removal capabilities in coming years at an estimated cost of $15 million. Beyond the state capitol, water utilities across the state dedicate substantive resources to remove nitrates. Ensuring nitrates in drinking water remain low is imperative—high nitrate levels in drinking water are associated with adverse human health outcomes for susceptible populations. Beyond drinking water, nitrate pollution also contributes to the poor water quality of Iowa’s rivers and lakes, diminishing the recreational value of these resources. This report explores important costs of high nitrates to Iowans and summarizes benefits to the state of meeting its NRS targets.