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Flooding in December? With Iowa weather, you just never know

Jolly Holiday Lights logo

Is Iowa’s weather unpredictable? Just ask the folks organizing the Jolly Holiday Lights event in Des Moines’ Water Works Park. Record December rains forced them to cancel the event for the rest of the 2015 holiday season. The Jolly Holiday folks are always prepared for snow during the Christmas season, but unprecedented rain and flooding meant lights out for this year’s displays.

That’s too bad. Over the years, my family has enjoyed driving through the creative light displays, which raises money for a great cause: Make-A-Wish Iowa Foundation.

But with Iowa’s weather, you just never know what you’re going to get.

That’s why it’s so curious that the Des Moines Water Works, and its CEO Bill Stowe, continually dismiss the weather as a primary cause for nitrate issues in the Raccoon River and insists on blaming farmers. To see how unpredictable Iowa weather can be, he only needs to look out the window.

Last summer organizers were forced to move a two-day summer music festival because of flooding in Water Works Park. And now, five months later, another round of flooding forces an early shutdown of Jolly Holiday Lights.

Yet, Stowe has repeatedly criticized farmers over water quality, as he led the Water Works to sue three northwest Iowa counties, more than 100 miles upriver from Des Moines.

The Water Works’ accusations just don’t hold water, according to a new scientific study. The study by the Iowa Soybean Association, which measured more than 3,000 water samples over 15 years, highlighted the fact that Iowa’s roller coaster weather patterns were behind any nitrate issues in the Raccoon, not fertilizer applications or other farming practices. The study showed that nitrate levels in the Raccoon River actually trended lower during the 15 years ending in 2014, despite the fact that farmers planted more acres of corn, a crop that requires more fertilizer than soybeans.

Weather was behind the big fluctuation in nitrate levels in the Raccoon, the study showed. Specifically, the new study showed the Raccoon’s nitrate levels dropped very low during the very dry year of 2012, but jumped in 2013, when the rains suddenly switched on and flushed out fertilizer in the soil because drought-ravaged crops didn’t absorb it. You can read more about the study here.

Iowa farmers are taking steps through the state’s groundbreaking water quality initiative to keep nutrients on their fields and out of the state’s streams and rivers, no matter the weather.

They are planting cover crops to absorb nitrogen before planting and after harvest. It’s estimated that cover crop plantings in Iowa have soared at a compounded growth rate of 192 percent since 2009. Farmers are also adopting tillage practices that leave more cover on the soil surface to protect it. More and more Iowa farmers are using precision nitrogen programs, to provide nutrients to the crop on a just-in-time basis. And they are installing bioreactors and other structures to remove nitrates from excess drainage before it gets to streams.

As history shows, agriculture in Iowa is a continual learning process and farmers constantly adjust and adopt new practices as science and research reveal improvements.

It’s a long-term commitment which won’t show results overnight. But, unlike the Des Moines Water Works’ strategy of filing lawsuits and pointing fingers, it shows real promise in improving water quality, no matter what kind of wacky weather Iowa sees next.

By Dirck  Steimel. Dirck is the News Services Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.