Meet the Iowa undergraduates providing water quality research to legislators

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June 28, 2019
iowa river

Noel Mills (Environmental Policy & Planning and Engaged Social Innovation, 2020) and Conrad Beech (Economics and Ethics & Public Policy, 2021) are two Hawkeyes who are ready to act on water quality initiatives in Iowa. They have seen the effects of contamination in Iowa’s waterways first hand, and they are equally concerned about the impact of contaminated water as it travels downstream. 

Approximately 33% of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest hypoxic zone in the world, is caused by runoff of toxic pesticides from Iowa farms into the Mississippi River. As delegates in the Iowa Policy Research Organization (IPRO), Noel and Conrad spent the past year working to provide the Iowa Legislature with timely, high-quality research on water quality. The team then advocated for the most effective and feasible solutions to the crisis on Hawkeye Caucus Day, April 9, 2019. 

When tasked with choosing a relevant and impactful issue to focus their research on, Noel was first to suggest water quality improvement. “It’s because I’m from Iowa, and I grew up on a farm,” she explained. Noel remembers swimming for the first time in Iowa’s streams and seeing with her own eyes how badly the water was contaminated. Since beginning her studies in Environmental Policy & Planning and Engaged Social Innovation at the University of Iowa, she has been driven to do something about Iowa’s poor water quality. “It just became disturbing to me that we weren’t doing more about it,” she said. 

Unlike Noel, Conrad is not from Iowa but he has had a lifelong interest in the environment and its preservation. “There was a forest reserve behind my house [in Illinois] and I would go back there every day. It gave me a reason to feel connected to the environment,” Conrad said. Conrad had briefly studied water quality the year before, but as an Economics and Ethics & Public Policy major, he was particularly interested in the economic policy behind Iowa’s clean water efforts. 

Together, they focused their research on providing legislators with a clear, nonpartisan solution to fund water quality improvement in Iowa. 

Legislators have already approved the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS), a highly-respected plan to mitigate water pollution from agricultural runoff. However, the costs of solving water pollution are as large as the problem; the INRS would require at least $1.2 billion in initial investment costs and at least $77 million annually. Currently, legislators have provided the INRS with only $282 million spread over a 12-year period. Noel and Conrad calculated the difference – only 3.7% of the INRS can actually be funded with $282 million. 

Determined to help stop water pollution in Iowa, Noel and Conrad set out to find out how the state can most effectively, equitably, and feasibly fund the INRS. 

Noel and Conrad considered three potential policy options for legislators: (1) maintain the status quo and refuse the necessary funding, (2) increase the sales tax by 3/8 of a cent, generating 170.65 million annually and $2.047 billion over 12 years, or (3) decrease corporate tax breaks, potentially generating over $510 million annually and over $6.141 billion over 12 years. After thoroughly evaluating each option, Noel and Conrad proposed the second option: increasing the sales tax by 3/8 of a cent. Since then, in a Hawkeye Poll, 70% of participants said that they would be in favor of their sales tax being increased if it went to water quality initiatives. 

The decision will ultimately be left to the Legislature, but Noel and Conrad made their case to policymakers on Hawkeye Caucus Day. 

Noel and Conrad say that they aren’t “experts in environmental science” and they wouldn’t claim to know more about the issue than legislators, some of whom have been working on these issues for decades. However, they are young students, and they embraced that identity when they were advocating for water quality. “The important thing was to make [legislators] know that young people are focused on this issue and that we won’t let go,” Noel said. “That’s what our role as college students is with advocacy on every topic,” she continued. 

Conrad agreed and added, “I know that there are nitrogen and phosphorus in our waters, but I have no idea how a bioreactor works… That kind of thing is boggling to be because I’m not an engineer or a scientist but telling legislators that this is a really important issue to me is something that I can do. This is how we get involved – by telling them to do something to support this.” 

He and Noel hope that the Legislature will follow their recommendations, but the most important message they had for policymakers was that they support water quality initiatives. 

Going forward, Noel and Conrad hope that other students will do the same. Noel said, “For something like [water quality] where it’s not as intuitive, it’s really important to knock on their door and let them know that we want them to keep this on their radar.” 

Noel gave an inspiring piece of advice for students at Iowa and around the world interested in advocacy: “Remember that we’re students and that we’re always learning, but also recognize the power of our voice and never forget that.” 

Read the full report here