By Donnelle Eller, The Des Moines Register
Neither Larry James nor Steve Bruere like to dwell on what divides environmentalists and the ag community when it comes to Iowa's issues with water quality.
Both are more interested on finding solutions as the two men tapped to lead a Greater Des Moines Partnership task force on water quality.
Finding agreement is a big part of both men's day jobs: James is a Des Moines real estate attorney; Bruere is president of the Peoples Co., a Clive land brokerage and farm management firm. They work to get landowners and tenants, and buyers and sellers to agree — on lease deals, on purchase agreements, on development pacts.
But the water quality discussion that has been most divisive, ignited by a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that seeks federal oversight of drainage districts in three north Iowa counties.
The utility claims drainage tiles in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties act as conduits, sending high levels of nitrates from farm fields into the Raccoon River that officials at times must clean from drinking water before it's safe for about 500,000 residents in central Iowa. The agency says it has spent $1.5 million over nearly two years removing nitrates from the public's water.
But James and Bruere say the differences between the two sides aren't as large as they seem: Farmers, environmentalists, residents and business leaders all want clean water.
James puts it more strongly. "There's no dispute that there's a clean-water issue. That's clear across the board." ''People understand there's a lot of room for improvement," said Bruere, who's had about 80 individual meetings with farm and environmental groups, agribusinesses and political leaders since the task force was formed in September.
The Des Moines Register reports that James sees no reason why Iowa can't have the cleanest water in the nation — and continue to be a growing agricultural powerhouse.
"It's not an urban vs. rural debate. Farmers want clean water as much as people in Des Moines," said the Faegre Baker Daniels attorney. He's also chairman of the Urban Land Institute of Iowa, a group that supports responsible land use and sustainable community development.
James and Bruere lead a diverse task force of 100 or more members that includes scientists, conservationists, farmers, environmentalists, policymakers and business leaders. Many have spent decades studying soil conservation and water quality.
The group is expected to submit its proposals in December to the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad, who plans to introduce his own package.
"I think there's a lot more common ground than people realize between environmental and ag groups," Bruere said.
The way James sees it, the state has a plan for water quality improvement in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary effort that outlines the best practices for improving water quality, based on Iowa State University research.
The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is designed to reduce by 45 percent the nitrates and phosphorus levels in Iowa waterways and eventually contribute to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Those nutrients come from cities, industry and agriculture but also are found naturally in the soil.
The strategy also is seen as key to improving water quality and soil health across the state.
"The science is there for us to grow our ag economy and provide clean water for drinking and recreation," James said. "We just need to have the will to do it."
Missing from Iowa's strategy, critics say, are measurable goals and deadlines. Also absent has been a major state investment in increasing conservation efforts, Water Works leaders and others say.
Bruere and James put the investment needed to meet the state nutrient reduction goals between $4 billion and $6 billion. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy has different cost estimates, depending on the practices adopted.
Finding the financing for the strategy is where Bruere and James are mostly focused.
"What's holding us back is: How do we pay for that?" James said. "How do we pay for the practices that we know work to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the water and retain the soil that's the basis for our entire economy?"
"Talk with any farmer. They're not interested in losing soil or nitrogen," he said. "They don't want to put something on their fields that washes away. But it's not always easy for a farmer to justify the expense."
Some farm and environmental groups lobbied lawmakers last session to establish a three-eighths of a cent sales tax that would support the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
Sixty-three percent of Iowa voters agreed to set up the fund in 2010; lawmakers, however, have failed to take action that would provide about $120 million for the fund with the sales tax.
Bruere said some task force ideas focus on incentives for farmland owners. That's because Iowa's 23 million farm acres are an asset class worth about $183 billion, so owners have a vested interest in maintaining and improving that value.
About 60 percent of Iowa's acres are rented. So, it's difficult for farmers to justify investing conservation practices, some of which can be costly, when they operate under a year-to-year lease in many cases.
Bruere said incentives such as tax credits to landowners encourage conservation practices that help improve water quality and benefit soil health.
For example, reducing soil erosion improves crop yields. That adds value for landowners, he said.
"When you talk about soil erosion and nutrient reduction, owners have the most to lose and the most to gain," he said.
?"It's going to take a lot of private investment to make it happen," said Bruere, whose company works to help farmland owners recognize that land's financial performance benefits from improved environmental performance.
James said public investment will be needed for practices such as bio-reactors, saturated buffers and wetlands that add little crop production benefits but provide water quality benefits for downstream users.
Bruere said the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit has brought "awareness and a lot of people to the table." But it's also made a lot of people in agriculture defensive.
"If you're sitting on a farm, the lawsuit makes you feel like you've done something wrong," regardless of the farming or conservation practices they've embraced, he said.
James said Iowa has a limited amount of time to find water-quality solutions. The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit is slated to be heard next August.
"If we don't deal with this as a state, a judge could decide this for us," he said. "And neither side knows what the outcome will be."
"We have the focus on this," he said. "What can we agree on? How can we fund this Nutrient Reduction Strategy to help make a significant decrease in nutrient runoff in the state? How do we incentivize this — not in small increments, but a big change?"
James points to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's comments last month, urging the state and Gov. Branstad to make a "Vision Iowa-like" investment in soil conservation and water quality.
Vision Iowa, which Vilsack created when he was the state's governor, pumped $225 million of taxpayer dollars into tourism, recreation and other quality of life projects, leveraging $2 billion in investment. It helped fund the Iowa Events Center and other landmark projects across the state.
Vilsack promised to direct Agriculture Department dollars to help match Iowa's investment.
James, who grew up in Des Moines, said improving the state's water quality is an economic development issue as well as a health issue.
Nitrate levels that exceed 10 milligrams per liter, the federal standard for drinking water, are considered dangerous for infants under 6 months. They also can contribute to cyanobacterial algal blooms that are primarily caused from phosphorus. Blue green algae can befoul drinking water and make pets and children sick.
James said young, talented workers want good parks. They want to kayak and canoe in clean water. They want biking, hiking and walking trails.
Getting those changes will be among the biggest issues Iowa faces and one of the biggest challenges their generation faces, say James and Bruere.
"I'm not under any illusion that it will be easy," James said. "There are a lot of players and positions. But ultimately, we need to do something and it needs to be big. We've been talking about it for years and years and years."