Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill NortheyThe lawsuit that the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) has threatened to file against three northwest Iowa counties has sparked a heated debate in the state around the merits of a voluntary system to improve water quality versus a government-driven regulatory system.

Most people involved in Iowa agriculture, including Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, believe the state’s voluntary water quality initiative is the right approach and that the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, launched in 2013, is off to a very strong start.

The Spokesman last week asked Northey to explain why he thinks a voluntary approach will be more effective than government-run regulation. Here are the excerpts from that discussion.

Q: Why are you so adamant that the voluntary system of improving water quality will be more effective than a regulatory approach being pushed by the Des Moines Water Works and others?
We have an agriculture system out there that is very different from farm to farm, from farmer to farmer. Not only is the land different, but the equipment is different and farms that have livestock operate differently. Those differences mean that the best decisions are being made by farmers on the land, not some sort of governmental body.
I see the regulatory approach as a very blunt instrument. It tries to fit everything into one box. That could mean that every farmer has to have cover crops whether you’re trying to knife in hog manure or not in the fall. You are just jamming everybody into a single box that won’t ensure an improvement in quality.

Q. Why do you think the voluntary approach will deliver quicker results?
We are doing voluntary conservation now, while a regulatory approach is going to take a decade or more of legal action to get there. Then you are going to have to put a regulatory approach together and figure out how to enforce it. So how long is that all going to take? And what’s the cost to Iowans? To me that all looks very convoluted.

In the voluntary approach, we are developing tools, and we will get them on the land right away. With litigation, we see 10 years of lawsuits, five years of regulation developing and 10 years to see if the regulations work. We’d be 25 years down the road before we’d see if regulations did or didn’t work, and I’d think it’s more likely than not that they didn’t work.

We would have lost 25 years of conservation and lost the advancement in technology. You would also disengage the farmers.

Q: You say that regulation would stifle the creativity and enthusiasm that farmers currently have for conservation and water quality improvements. Why?
With a regulatory system, you lock yourself into the technology at a point in time. If a farmer figures out a way to seed cover crops at a half bushel an acre and get a better stand, we won’t be able to move to that because the box on the regulation says we have exactly one way.

We are going to have a lot of technology coming along in agriculture. I would sure hate to throw out disincentives for people trying new things just because they didn’t fit in a regulatory scheme.

Q: You’ve stated a concern that proponents of the regulatory system are vague on how it would work and be enforced. Do you think they need to provide more detail of their plans?
I really do. We have spent a lot of time describing what we think are effective non-regulatory approaches. We are definitely not just out there saying that the voluntary approach will work and offering no actions to back it up. We are describing it in detail, and we are showing that it does work. And we believe that the effectiveness of our voluntary water quality initiative comes with a thoughtful application of strategies that help us grow the participation, as well as the flexibility it provides.

I don’t hear any description from the folks who want the regulatory approach of what that would look like and how it would be appropriate for different types of farms. To me, they are saying let’s just blow up what we are doing and do this, even though there is no proof it would work.

Q: The opponents of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy say there are no testing mechanisms to show if progress is being made. Is that a weakness of the strategy?
Monitoring water quality throughout the system and determining exactly where nutrients are coming from is complex and likely, hugely expensive. But the data we have to date show steady to declining nitrate levels in the Raccoon River and most other rivers and streams.

We are also taking other steps to monitor progress. For example, this winter we are working with Iowa State University to conduct a survey of farmers in priority watersheds to get an idea of what steps they are taking to improve water quality. We will continue those surveys, so we’ll have a benchmark of progress. We also put out an annual progress report on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is refining its long-term monitoring and modeling of nitrates and phosphorus in surface water.  

Q: What about the criticism that only a few farmers, but not the majority, will step up in a voluntary system?
A:  I don’t agree. I think most farmers are already adopting practices to improve water quality and reduce soil loss, or will soon. We know in society not everyone joins in to any effort, but we will make huge progress as a majority of farmers volunteer to take steps to improve water quality.

Right now, the interest in adopting conservation measures is crazy strong, and we are seeing unprecedented investment. In fiscal 2014, nearly 2,400 Iowa farmers invested $13 million, while the state contributed $9.5 million in cost-share and administrative support provided by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. And there was a lot more investment that farmers did on their own and aren’t using the cost-share programs.

I think farmers are adopting these practices and investing their own money to do it for several reasons. They want to be on the cutting edge, and if these tools help them keep more fertilizer on their land, they want to do it. They also see the societal value in being environmentally responsible.

And farmers intend to stay on the farm and intend for their kids and grandkids to farm the land, too. I see the pride in families when we give out the Century and Heritage Farm awards. It would be silly for a farmer to do anything that would jeopardize the viability of future generations.