Commentary: Water quality is a muddy issue

tile monitor
Farm and Dairy file photo.

Two years ago, Iowa adopted a statewide voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads statewide, both by 45 percent.

“Iowa is ‘all in’,” said Iowa State’s John Lawrence, when I heard him explain the water quality plan in July 2014. “We all own this thing.”

Lawrence is director of the university’s new Iowa Nutrient Research Center and associate dean for extension and outreach in Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

For farmers, the statewide strategy included voluntary measures like adoption of best management practices, bioreactors, reduced tillage, wetlands and cover crops.

“This is generational type of work,” Lawrence said, “but we have to get started on it.”

Well, earlier this year, the Des Moines Water Works decided it couldn’t wait for the incremental changes in nitrate levels through voluntary practices, and filed a lawsuit against three counties upstream. (Download a .pdf of the Des Moines Water Works complaint.)

The complaint specifies boards of supervisors in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, because they serve as trustees of 10 drainage districts in those counties. It seeks to have the drainage districts identified as point source pollutants and require National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act.

According to the state department of agriculture, Iowa has 9 million acres of tile drainage and 3,000 drainage districts.

Related commentary: Water issues rising, are you ready?

The utility’s lawsuit claims the drainage tiles act as a conduit, contributing to high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River and drinking water supplies downstream. The Raccoon is one of two major sources of drinking water for Des Moines.

The March 16 suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern Iowa, also seeks to make farmers comply with federal clean water standards that currently exempt agricultural practices, but apply to manufacturing and commercial users.

The water works said its nitrate removal system cost $900,000 in 2013, according to the Des Moines Register, and the lawsuit is seeking damages.

“It’s very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water,” Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works told the New York Times.

The ag community has said it needs more time to adopt conservation efforts, and that nonpoint water issues are too complex to solve through a lawsuit.

“It’s (poor water quality) blamed on agriculture,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in March at the annual meeting of the Northeast Iowa Agricultural Experimental Association. “As if nutrients only come from agriculture, and only from fertilizer or manures.

“It’s a simplistic way of looking at things, but behind all that there are some issues we need to address. We need to figure out how we do a better job of managing our nutrients and getting them into our crops.”

Northey speaks wisdom farmers everywhere should heed: Bottom line, farmers do need to figure out how to prevent runoff and improve nutrient management.

We all know it’s not just an Iowa problem. Pennsylvania farmers have been in the middle of water regulations governing the Chesapeake Bay. Ohio farmers are in the middle of water concerns in Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Erie and other waters. Illinois has its own statewide nutrient reduction strategy. And I’ve certainly sounded my call to action before.

Improving nutrient management — whether by voluntary measures or by forced regulation — isn’t cheap. There are cost-share dollars out there for many practices, but this will be an area of added expense for farms or all sizes and all commodities.

Add to this, the ruling May 278 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that defines “waters of the United States” and jurisdiction for the Clean Water Act, and you get a muddy mess that farmers cannot ignore.

You simply can’t.


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Related content: Ohio legislature approves new nutrient bill, March 25, 2015



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