Iowa Farmers Look to Conservation, Voluntary Practices as Water Lawsuit Progresses

July 21, 2015 01:00 PM

As AgDay has been reporting, the Des Moines Water Works earlier this year filed a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against the counties located in the watershed of the two rivers that supply drinking water to Des Moines. Now, the two sides have been scheduled for their day in court--in August 2016.

In this report, Betsy Jibben looks at Iowa farmers' efforts to use conservation practices to solve the problem of agricultural runoff. 

In a heated battle over clean water, the key question appears to be this: Can state or federal permits resolve a water quality problem or can it be solved by voluntary conservation practices? The two sides in Iowa disagree--strongly.

On one side stands Bill Stowe, the CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works. “The idea that voluntary practices upstream will protect our environment and what is a public health issue in central Iowa is simply 'Alice in Wonderland.' It’s not a reality. It’s a myth,” he said.

On the other side, you'll find Jerry Mohr of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “One effort in one direction will not accomplish what we want to accomplish. It’s going to take an attack on many different fronts to improve the water quality in Iowa," he said.

Mohr said that Iowa farmers are already pushing forward with conservation practices. “You don’t need to throw your whole operation in at once, but you need to start to make positive steps,” he said.

Those steps include following Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. The program is designed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45%.

“It incentivizes producers to do the right thing on their farmers, whether that’s planting cover crops, and installing practices that reduce nutrient run-off. That’s what it’s all about. Farmers need that. They need incentives to adapt new technology. To me, it’s the right approach,” said John Weber, president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council.

Watch the AgDay story here:

The strategy is funded by the Iowa legislature, which as appropriated about $10 million per year for the water quality initiative that includes the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That money goes towards information, training and education. Over the last two years, more than 1,500 farmers applied for $3.4 million in funding from the initiative, much of which went to first-time users for conservation projects.

But there’s no guaranteed funding by state or federal agencies, and the practices are voluntary. 

But Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works said they do not have time to let a voluntary strategy play out.

"We hear a lot of lip service about the nutrient reduction strategy which has a huge menu on a number of different practices that can be used, but there's no leadership in the industrial agricultural community to point out ones that should be used more often," said Stowe.

Philanthropist and Illinois farmer Howard G. Buffett says conservation agriculture can and will work, but farmers need to make changes before those changes are decided for them. “I think we have a choice," he said. "That choice is to implement different farming techniques, different nutrient management like cover crops or whatever it is. That works for different farmers. Either we start doing that at a scale, or we’ll get regulated for it."

Lawsuit aside, agriculture groups say they are striving to make a better future and hope more regulations aren’t part of it. “It’s not one single thing that’s going to solve this problem. It’s going to take a lot of people being collaborative to solve this problem. We will get there, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” Mohr said. 

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Spell Check

Denton, MD
7/22/2015 07:24 AM

  Be prepared to forget 50 years of Agr. College training. Agr. will bare all the worry and cut backs. Dealing with the Chesapeake bay problems you will find your urban so call friends will get off free. The geese and ducks will eat the cover crops and go to rivers and deposit it back into the water. You will have paper work buffers grass waterways and variate systems you want but it will never be enough. Their goals are always changing. Be prepared for a ride to no where.


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