DES MOINES, IA, Aug 26, 2015 - Corn may still be king in Iowa and in Iowa politics, but to keep it that way, farmers face a severe challenge in Bill Stowe, the man who runs the Des Moines metropolitan water system. Stowe says hes determined to see the government start regulating underground runoff from Iowa farm fields, even if that means a serious cut to a multibillion dollar industry.

Stowe, the CEO of Des Moines Water Works, went so far in an interview with Agri-Pulse as to compare corn to tobacco and coal.

Iowa is something more than a feedlot between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, he said, when reminded that forcing farmers to cut back on corn production to reduce the amount of nitrates that get into the states rivers could have far-reaching economic consequences.

Weve heard the same arguments about coal and tobacco. At some point there is a public health consequence to running a model into the ground. The current model is being run into the ground at the detriment of our consumers.  Public health consequences from continued nitrate pollution in our rivers is creating a public health consequence here similar to coal, similar to tobacco.

Comparing corn to tobacco is an exaggeration, to say the least. Des Moines Water Works is required by the EPA to keep nitrates and other pollutants below safety limits, and in fact, it puts the nitrates back into the river after they are removed from the drinking water supply. Its the expense of denitrifying the water that the utility cited in deciding to sue three upstream counties in Iowa.

The lawsuit, which could have implications far beyond Iowa but could take years to resolve, aims to force the federal government to start regulating tile drains as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The Environment Protection Agency considers the agricultural runoff from tile drains as an exempt, non-point source. Several other states, including Illinois and Indiana, also have extensive tile drainage.

If I take a pipe from any business in this state and take it to the waters of the U.S. or the waters of state of Iowa I have to have a permit, he said.

By mid-August, the utility’s denitrification plant had already been in operation for a record 148 days this year. Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction plan, which is designed to cut the amount of nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, calls for reducing the nitrates in Iowa rivers by more than 40 percent. But Stowe scoffs at the idea that it will be successful in reducing nitrate loads sufficiently. Stowe acknowledged that he discussed the issue on multiple occasions over several years with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who backs the voluntary strategy. Asked if the former Iowa governor tried to talk the utility out of pursuing the lawsuit, Stowe said, “Everybody would have preferred that we wouldn’t end up in a lawsuit.”

Im hard pressed to come up with a single environmental improvement that has happened through volunteerism, Stowe said. Drinking water is hardly the area that we want to be relying on the best wishes and good motives of those upstream.

Reaching the state’s nitrate-reduction goal would take enormous changes in cropping practices, and even how much corn the state can produce, according to Iowa State University agronomists. Under one scenario, farmers would have to plant cover crops on 25 percent of the corn and soybean acreage and convert a fourth of the state’s cropland to extended, four- to five-year rotations. At least two of those years the land would have to be turned over to alfalfa rather than corn or soybeans. And even the cover crops – which can be difficult to establish in more northern counties – along with rotations wouldn’t be enough. Farmers would still have to reduce their nitrogen usage and also install wetlands and drainage projects to capture some of the nitrates before they reach the streams and rivers.

Mike Castellano, one of the agronomists, says the high nitrate levels Stowe is complaining about this year likely reflect the wide variability in nitrate loads due to changes in weather patterns. Most nitrate is lost from corn and soybean fields before they are planted and start to grow. If the soil is warm, wet and uncovered, microbes naturally produce nitrates from the soil. More precipitation washes more nitrates from the ground. Weather modulates the concentration and the load that is delivered to the waterways, because it (water) is the transportation mechanism, he said.

(Weather variations also are one of the reasons critics of the lawsuit say that tile drains would be difficult to regulate.)

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey is the first to admit that the strategys goals will be extraordinarily hard to achieve. Although he and others, with the help of state and federal funding, are pushing farmers to adopt cover crops, theyre still only being planted on 2 to 3 percent of the states cropland, or about 400,000 to 700,000 acres, he estimates.

Some of the new drainage options, called bioreactors and saturated buffers, could help, too, but theyre expensive even with federal subsidies. Bioreactors are essentially drains filled with wood chips to filter the underground flow coming through the tile lines. Each project can cost $8,000 to $10,000. Saturated buffers work by diverting the end of the tile lines through the end of the field rather than leaving the water to run straight into a stream or ditch.

How worried is Northey about the lawsuit? Its like saying Im nervous about a tornado, he said. Its unlikely to happen but at some place its going to happen, so youve got to think about it.

One option for the state is to simply pay for Des Moines Water Works to replace its outdated denitrification system. That would cost $100 million or more, but thats a fraction of the value of Iowas corn crop, which was worth about $9 billion last year even after a drop in market price.

In many ways its more efficient for Des Moines Water Works to treat the tiny amount of the water that they pull out of the river than for farmers to treat all of the water going down the river, most of which doesnt get pulled out, said Northey.

Stowe doesnt rule out settling the lawsuit, but that would create a precedent the state might not want to set.

And said Northey, Why stop at nitrates? Why not look at everyone else they have to fix water for?

In any event, the case isn’t likely to be decided for years. The lawsuit doesn’t even go to trial until August 2016. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, Northey believes Iowa farmers realize they have to address the runoff issue. “Farmers say we’ve got to figure out what to do here. It’s just the right thing.”


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