High Stakes for High Nitrate

February 11, 2017 02:32 AM
water drop

Are voluntary efforts enough to satisfy nitrate reduction needs?

The stakes are high for north-central Iowa father-son team Riley and Todd Lewis. When nitrates in drinking water spiked, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) cried foul, and farmers are looking at a sticky situation.

“We got tired of hearing about how farmers are causing the DMWW issues,” Todd says. “We want to be farmers who protect the land.”

Adding new conservation practices is their first step to reducing nutrient runoff. Farmers considering conservation efforts should identify their goals, what strategies best fit their farm practices and possible cost-share programs.


The Lewis’s Winnebago County fields feature small hills and don’t technically qualify as highly erodible land, but the pair says that view could be what allowed nitrates to become a problem in the first place. Runoff and nutrient loss has become especially challenging in the past few years because of hard and fast rains even well-drained soil can’t manage. 

“We put in nine waterways last year, close to one mile total,” Riley says. The Lewis’s added waterways on less productive areas of fields due to erosion and planted with native grasses to slow water and nutrient movement. 

Grass waterways can provide relatively high pollutant removal, which is why Ohio’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, for example, aims to have grass waterways on 75% of farms. The amount of nutrient loss reduction varies by soil, slope, topography, construction and maintenance.

The Lewis’s approach to nutrient management is paying off. Water samples from fields with waterways showed nitrate levels not only below threshold, but unable to differentiate from tap water after one year.

In addition to the nutrient runoff benefits, the Lewis’s were encouraged to look into cost-share options through the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to reduce monetary risks. In some cases, NRCS can provide 50% to 75% cost-share assistance for programs such as grass waterways.

“First, contact your NRCS office. We have different programs and match them to issues at the field level,” says Eric Hurley, NRCS nutrient management specialist. “Addressing resource concerns such as water quality depends on the field itself, its soils, crops, slopes and drainage. It also depends on the producer’s objectives.”

Field-office staff visit fields and give recommendations for problem areas. After that, farmers can apply for NRCS funding. There is a cap, but the pool of money is growing from federal and private investment.

“Four years ago was the first year we got dollars for soil and water quality,” explains Bill Northerly, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. “Now we get $9.6 million federal.”

Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack awarded up to $252 million nationwide through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to encourage conservation practices that improve the nation’s water quality, enhance soil health, support wildlife and protect agriculture’s viability.

Federal allocation for each state differs. The 12 states along the Mississippi River Basin have additional responsibilities appointed by the EPA Hypoxia Task Force to reduce Gulf hypoxia caused by excess nutrients. 

A state’s nutrient reduction plan can also provide incentives and additional dollars toward nutrient loss reduction. The Illinois Fertilizer Act provides a 75¢ per ton assessment on bulk fertilizer sold, which goes to research and education focused on nutrient use and water quality. Minnesota is awarding $221 million in funds to help develop watershed restoration and protection strategies, ground water and drinking water protection, and monitoring and assessment. Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative focuses on outreach and education of their voluntary programs.

The challenge with voluntary programs is farmer buy-in. In many states, nutrient reduction is optional. Even though funding is available, many farmers haven’t taken the leap, which is DMWW CEO Bill Stowe’s biggest argument against non-regulated nutrient reduction.

“We’ve tried working with ag commodity groups for the past 30 years and in the past five years we’ve had a big wake-up call,” Stowe says. “We have an alarming level of nitrate concentration and now phosphorus is creating concerns with cyanotoxins.”

Rising nitrate concentration lead the group to install a denitrification system in 1993, a system Stowe says needs an $80 million upgrade to tackle demand and increased nitrate levels.

The phosphorus concerns at hand surprised the DMWW crew, however. Cyanotoxins produce blue-green algae found at the surface of water. It’s not common for algae blooms to develop to a problematic level in moving water. There are no known standards for DMWW to meet—only that cyanotoxins pose human health risks.

The Iowa Supreme Court recently gave their opinion on DMWW’s state-level lawsuit. The court found there is no law on which DMWW can base their argument to sue drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties. In a second federal lawsuit, DMWW is asking tile lines change from nonpoint source pollution to point source, which would require farmers to get permits for nitrate contribution to state water. 

“Tile lines are the biggest contributor, which is why the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are hot spots,” Stowe says. 

The federal trial is set for June 28. If DMWW wins at a federal level, farmers can expect regulated instead of voluntary nutrient stewardship requirements. In the meantime, farmers can count the state case as a win, but it’s important to not become lax with stewardship practices. 

“One-size-fits-all regulation would likely be an ineffective experiment,” argues Sean McMahon, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) director. “For example, regulation that forces all farmers to use cover crops or install buffers regardless of varying soil types, slopes, and cropping and management histories won’t work.” 

It takes skilled advisers to provide recommendations and design an approach that meets the environmental and economic needs on each field for each farmer, he adds.

IAWA, the Soil Health Partnership, NRCS and private industry are collaborating to encourage farmers to voluntarily use conservation practices. IAWA, with private industry, raised $48 million to implement additional on-farm conservation programs.  

“We’re not going to wait for regulations to tell us we have to do something,” Riley says. “It’s not easy, but at least it’s our choice.” 



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