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Water quality experts: farmers are cooperating, even when nature doesn’t

Water quality experts: farmers are cooperating, even when nature doesn’t
Don’t mistake this explanation for an excuse.

Weather causes nitrates to seep from Iowa’s naturally nitrogen-rich soils, and it’s the primary cause of the state’s water quality issues.

That’s not me talking. That’s Iowa State University soil scientist Michael Castellano and scientific data that’s been collected for years.

According to Castellano, “fertilizer applications really have very little to do with [Iowa’s water quality issues].”

A new case study from the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance backs him up. The study finds that even as farmers planted and fertilized more corn from 1999-2014, there was no correlation between increased fertilizer inputs and nitrate levels in the Raccoon River (the source of Des Moines’ drinking water). The study does show that nutrient runoff was best during the drought of 2012 and worst during the wet spring of 2013.

Finding science-based, collaborative solutions

So why is Des Moines Water Works trying to pin this complex problem on one group of people, by suing farmers in northwest Iowa?

Doesn’t it make more sense to listen to the scientific explanation and work together on proven practices that account for the variables (natural and man-made) that are impacting water quality?

That’s why you see so many farmers and national, state, and local leaders lining up to support and implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based plan to conserve the state’s soils and protect water quality created by Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The strategy includes a range of proven practices and the flexibility for farmers to choose the ones that will work best on their farms, based on local variables like weather and soil conditions.

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses Iowa’s plan and progress:
“My perception is Iowa’s been a real leader in the whole nutrient reduction effort. They’ve had a good, aggressive nutrient reduction strategy. We’ve been supportive of that moving forward, and want to be a partner with them and other federal agencies, academic institutions, state partners, and state stakeholders.”

Mark Hague
EPA Region 7 Administrator (covering Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri)

Other prominent supporters of Iowa’s farmers-led efforts include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and various other state and local leaders, including the mayor of Cedar Rapids (Iowa’s second largest city).

Even with such broad support, no one expects a quick and easy end to Iowa’s water quality challenges. It’s going to be an on-going process: one that requires widespread collaboration, education, implementation, measurement, and adjustment (based on how various practices respond to changing conditions on Iowa’s unique landscapes). Iowans are up to the challenge, led by groups like the just-announced Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC).

While organizations like INREC and communities around Iowa are choosing collaboration and rolling up their sleeves to implement activities that will make a meaningful impact, Des Moines Water Works is sticking with its decision to take its rural neighbors to court, further delaying conservation progress.

Unlike the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the utility can’t explain how its lawsuit will help improve water quality (it won’t) or by when, turning the argument for a lawsuit into one big, finger-pointing excuse.

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.