Collaboration, not a Courtroom will Ensure Clean Water for Iowa

Yesterday I drove from North Central Iowa to southern Illinois where I’m overseeing a major remodel of a sow farm. As I drove, I couldn’t help but think about the calendar changing to March, which brings the countdown to spring and of course, a new planting season.

I took notice of farm fields as they passed by, fresh field tile being installed, spring tillage beginning as farmers ready their seed beds for new seed. I am always intrigued by the different methods of conservation in place as the landscape changes from our prairie pothole region of North Central Iowa to the rolling hills and river bluffs of Eastern Iowa and Illinois.

I could also see riverbeds in need of attention after a winter season of freezing, melting and erosion had taken its toll. Is it livestock or tillage causing this erosion? No. The same erosion cycles can be found on the grounds of the Des Moines Water Works facilities in Des Moines. It’s none other than the power of Mother Nature herself. Water has incredible power. After all, it created the Grand Canyon over time! Water itself can dissolve rock and mineral.

Water quality is no new concern for Iowans and farmers alike. But recent headline news stories in our state make it seem as though farming practices have altered in recent years causing more nutrients are ending up in our water system. When in reality, the converse is true.

Spokespeople involved in the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit believe a permitting process is the way to regulate nutrient runoff into water, but what they’re failing to take into account is the very nature in which Iowa soil and nitrogen co-exist. Soils here in Iowa are naturally nitrogen-rich. Snow melt and large rain events cause water-soluable nitrates to move throughout the soil and collect in our water. Studies conducted by the Clean Water Alliance help support the fact that this natural process is a primary contributor to our water quality issues and it’s simply a function of Mother Nature!

The research shows:

  • Corn acreage increased from 1994-2014, which meant the need for fertilizers to grow these acres increased.
  • No correlation was shown between this increased fertilizer use and the amount of nitrate in the Raccoon River.
  • Study supported that nutrient levels were best during the drought of 2012
  • Also showed that nutrient levels were worse during the wet Spring of 2013 (I remember this one, over 30 inches of rain fell on my farm that month!)

The Des Moines Waterworks discharges their nitrate waste from the water treatment plant back into the river from a point source. They hold a permit to do so and it’s easy to measure compliance. Drainage districts collect water from miles and miles of farm fields. Nitrates that end up in these drainage districts are a function of Mother Nature moving them. So if farmers must comply with a permit, do regulators have a way of turning off the rain?

A headline I read a couple months back said it best “Farmers are cooperating even when nature isn’t.” Billions of dollars have been spent on conservation research, and billions more will be spent. Ag technology is moving fast: saturated buffers, cover crops, wetlands, no-till, seed technologies… new ways are being dreamed up every day to combat water!

We are blessed with an abundance of innovation in agriculture than allows us to continually produce more food, fiber and fuel with less resources. Farmers have done this job so well that food is just expected to be abundant, readily available, and cheap! It’s the disconnect between food production on the farm and food preparation in the kitchen that causes confusion. Have questions about water quality or what farmers do or could do to care for our environment? Talk with a farmer! It’s collaboration that will ensure clean water for the future of Iowa, not a courtroom.