Farm Groups Defend Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Plan

Iowa Farm Scene

Criticism of voluntary farmer-led conservation practices is ill-timed and isn't productive, say Iowa farm leaders.

Published on: May 27, 2013

Activation of the Des Moines Water Works' nitrate removal facility May 10 to treat tap water for consumer consumption has created quite a stir. The facility hadn't been used for six years as a result of resourceful management of water at the treatment plant and also thanks to cooperative weather. But with record precipitation in April 2013, the Des Moines Water Works needed to act by turning on its nitrate removal system.

The Des Moines Water Works draws its source water from both the Des Moines River and the Raccoon River. And both sources have recently gone over the federal EPA's limit on nitrate content for drinking water so the waterworks has its nitrate removal system running as a result. Meanwhile, letters to the editor in the Des Moines newspaper and statements like "water customers have to pay while farmers pollute" have caused Iowa farm groups to say "wait a minute."

GIVE VOLUNTARY PLAN A CHANCE: Activation of the Des Moines Water Works nitrate removal facility May 10 has prompted critics to complain that the voluntary approach to preserve water quality is inadequate and wont work. Farm groups involved with water quality projects say this ill-timed criticism of voluntary, farmer-led soil and water conservation practices and the state nutrient reduction strategy, which is not yet funded or implemented, is counter-productive.
GIVE VOLUNTARY PLAN A CHANCE: Activation of the Des Moines Water Works' nitrate removal facility May 10 has prompted critics to complain that the voluntary approach to preserve water quality is inadequate and won't work. Farm groups involved with water quality projects say this ill-timed criticism of voluntary, farmer-led soil and water conservation practices and the state nutrient reduction strategy, which is not yet funded or implemented, is counter-productive.

Iowa has had unusually dry conditions going back to 2011, an unprecedented drought in 2012 and record rainfall and snow this April, points out Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau. In fact, April 2013 had the most precipitation than any April in Iowa in more than 140 years of recordkeeping. He points out that the simple truth is there's not one regulation that would have prevented the current spike in nitrates from the Raccoon River and Des Moines River watersheds, short of outlawing crop production in Iowa.

Farm groups are concerned about calls for increased regulation of farmers as a way to try to control nutrient runoff from farm fields

Because increasing regulations on farmers won't prevent such weather-induced nitrate spikes that's exactly why the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have drafted the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy is a science and technology based approach to assess and reduce the amount of nutrients going into Iowa waters and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, notes Robinson. It will use best management practices for farmers to target efforts to reduce the amount of nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost-effective manner. Weather patterns of extreme drought and extreme rainfall are taking their toll in Iowa and all watersheds see the impact.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Iowa farmers and their organization leaders are concerned in particular by recent statements made by Bill Stowe, manager of the Des Moines Waterworks, in response to activation of the waterworks' nitrate removal facility.

Criticism of voluntary, farmer-led soil and water conservation practices and the performance of a state nutrient reduction strategy not yet funded or implemented that accompanied activation of the nitrate reduction facility at the Des Moines Water Work such criticism is ill-timed, says Mark Jackson, a farmer from Rose Hill who is president of the Iowa Soybean Association. Absent of appropriate context and dialogue, the critics of the voluntary nutrient reduction plan have the potential to be divisive at a time when working collaboratively on such complex and important issues has never been more important.

The Iowa Soybean Association, in partnership with Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance and the Iowa Corn Growers Association, issued a statement saying they believe there's a better approach: one nurtured through open dialogue and strong partnerships.

An open discussion on water quality issues will be held June 27, and the Des Moines Waterworks general manager has accepted an invitation to attend

Last week the ISA, ACWA and ICGA formally invited Des Moines Water Works general manager Bill Stowe to participate in an open dialogue with farmers and ag stakeholders on water quality issues at the June 27 ACWA board meeting to be held in Ames. Stowe has accepted the invitation to attend.

"We are pleased that Bill has accepted this invitation and we look forward to welcoming him at our meeting," says Harry Ahrenholtz, ACWA president. "It illustrates genuine interest in discussing this important issue with our partners, members and farmers."

An invitation was also extended to the Des Moines Register editorial board to participate in a comprehensive discussion about water quality and watershed management issues.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Roger Wolf, ISA director of environmental programs and services and ACWA's executive director, says public statements singling out farmers for not doing their part to positively impact water quality illustrates a lack of engagement in this issue and a lack of understanding. Also, arbitrarily dismissing the intent of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy -- a strategy that is not yet implemented --  is the wrong conclusion.

To say Iowa's voluntary approach lacks goals or measurable outcome is false

"To say the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy lacks goals or measurable outcomes is false," says Wolf. "The strategy is designed to advance a science and technology based framework to direct efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner. The strategy establishes a goal of at least a 45% reduction in total riverine nitrogen and phosphorous loading leaving the state."

With specific respect to nonpoint sources, including agricultural land uses, combinations of technologies and management practices applied on farms and landscapes across Iowa will need to achieve a 41% load reduction in nitrogen and 29% reduction in phosphorous to meet the aspiring 45% reduction goal.

Farmers and water providers, Wolf says, have been proactive in addressing and protecting Iowa's water quality by employing conservation methods that work in their fields and implementing more advanced purification systems. And while no system is perfect, farmers and stakeholders haven't stopped striving to achieve it.

Finger-pointing isn't productive, say farm groups, who are calling for more cooperation to solve the problem

"Everyone involved in the system -- rural and urban -- has benefited from longstanding relationships," Wolf says. "We should resolve to continue the progress in improving environmental performance to the benefit of all Iowans. In lieu of the recent activities and statements critical of agriculture's commitment to water quality, it's vital that we work in collaboration to seek and develop holistic solutions benefiting both urban and rural residents."

Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance is an association consisting of 12 ag retailers in the fertilizer and crop protection business and three associate members operating in the Des Moines and Raccoon River basins. Since 1999, ACWA members have invested more than $1 million in funding for water quality monitoring in the Raccoon River and, since 2008, in the Des Moines River and their largest tributaries. More than 10,000 water samples have been collected by more than 200 certified and automated samplers. ACWA also funded the first successful real-time nitrate analyzer in Iowa in the Raccoon River. For more information, go to the Agriculure's Clean Water Alliance website.