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Farmers, Policymakers Debate Water Quality Regulation

This summer, officials in Iowa have been asking farmers to voluntarily reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. That’s because the fertilizer contains nitrates that are being washed into state waterways and creating environmental concerns locally and nationally. The runoff has been particularly bad this year, and the outcry over typical crop practices is growing. To find if Iowa farmers are complying with the government’s request, Iowa Public Radio’s Clay Masters followed the water trail.

It’s rolling green hills and patches of thick timber down in southeast Iowa. Part-time farmer Garry Klicker walks through knee high grass to a gully on his land and points out a gully on his land that has deepened because of rainfall. 

"It was always a gully here, but it was nothing like this," Klicker said. "“If I’d had all these hillsides in row crop and tilling them every year, it would have been much, much deeper.”

This soil winds up in the Des Moines River, which enters the state in the northwest corner and exits near Klicker's farm. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Des Moines River carries 23 percent of Iowa’s water runoff.

Most of Klicker’s land is in the Conservation Reserve Program – or CRP. He gets paid by the feds to leave his land in grass and keeps the soil on his land. That’s how he’s at least partly addressing the fertilizer and nitrate issue. He says he understands why most farmers rely so heavily on fertilizer.

“So, you have to cut a corner somewhere, it’s worth the extra investment in extra fertilizer and so on," Klicker said. "If you have to pay for the land and actually stay there… if there’s nothing to stop you? You’re going to do it.”

And that has officials in the state’s largest city, Des Moines concerned.

Des Moines’ Democratic Mayor, Frank Cownie, stands by the Des Moines River in the heart of the city’s downtown. The water that passes through the city, eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, helping create a polluted dead zone. Cownie recalled a conversation a few years ago the Mayor of New Orleans.

“He essentially said to me, you know what we call that point where the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf of Mexico? We call it little Iowa," Cownie reccaled. "He thought it was funny. And at the moment I thought it was funny. But it really is a sobering statement.”

But the nitrate concerns also hit closer to home. The Des Moines and nearby Raccoon River supply drinking water to the half-million residents of the Des Moines metro. Nitrate levels got so high earlier this summer, that it cost 7,000 dollars a day to remove the nitrates from the water. Des Moines Water Works General Manager Bill Stowe says if farmers aren’t held accountable and regulated, the Des Moines Water Works could violate the Clean Water Act.

“The idea that self-regulation and the system somehow will lead to optimal economic and environmental just is ludicrous," Stowe said. "Based on history and the real fact that our drinking water sources right now are being threatened.”

But John Lawrence, Associate Dean of Extension Programs and Outreach at Iowa State University, says they need to start getting farmer buy-in by making it a volunteer basis. Lawrence helped write the plan to reduce nutrient runoff, dubbed theIowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He says the practices and costs in the plan are intended to be attractive to farmers. 

“If we’re still having this conversation in 5 years, 10 years, whatever, it’s going to be a much more uncomfortable discussion,” Lawrence said. 

Right now, Iowa Department of Agriculture estimates about 700 new farmers have started doing conservation practices outlined in the Reduction Strategy since its release. USDA estimates there are about 90,000 farms of various sizes in Iowa. The legislature made 22 million dollars over 5 years available to support water quality practices. But farmers are not on the hook – there is no state regulation compelling them to change.

But that doesn’t mean farmers aren’t making changes.

On a hot summer day, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Governor Terry Branstad, both Republicans, survey a wetland on a farm near the central Iowa town of Winterset. Water here also flows to the Des Moines River… The runoff from the farm pools in this wetland, the nitrates are reduced by almost 70 percent. Wetlands like this are among the strategies the state is promoting farmers use to reduce nitrates before water leaves the farm. The challenge, Secretary Northey says, is to engage farmers.

“They don’t get credit for it changing, but they certainly don’t get penalized as well," Northey said. "But they engage because it’s the right thing to do and we give them the tools that work in their operations to make it happen.”

Secretary Northey helped draft the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Critics say the strategy was too heavily influenced by industrialized ag-groups. But the Environmental Protection Agency applauds the strategy. Karl Brooks, a regional administrator with the EPA says the agency needs to see year by year how these practices are making a difference. He says if the state isn’t making progress; officials might have to change the program to make adjustments.

“It’s entirely possible that the ag producers themselves, once they’re committed into this are going to want to make it succeed,” Brooks said. 

That’s the case for farmer Tim Smith. He farms more than 800 acres outside of Eagle Grove in north central Iowa; Closer to the Des Moines Rivers’ headwaters.

Smith drives his faded old red pickup truck across his land to a creek that cuts through his property. The water eventually flows into the Des Moines River. The farm’s been in his family since the late 1800s. He says he never thought about nitrate levels in the more than 35 years he’s been farming. That is until someone came and tested his water. His nitrates were very high.

“That really opened my eyes to what was going on and realizing I was part of the problem even though I was doing what I thought was the best I could,” Smith said. 

Smith now plants a third crop –a cover crops - he uses rye It holds the nitrates in the fields. Also, instead of plowing the whole field, he just plows strips. It's called strip tilling. That reduces soil erosion. Now, when officials test his water, he’s not embarrassed. His levels have come down significantly. He’s pleased with his results and offers a warning to farmers.

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy is voluntary but it’s not optional," Smith said. "If farmers don’t step up to the plate and be proactive, there will be changes coming, I believe.”

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.
Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.