Northey: Water quality progress requires cooperation

December 20, 2015

Bill Northey is Iowa secretary of agriculture and a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake. 

I shook my head when I read the Register’s editorial Dec. 6 titled “Don’t blame God for water woes.” Unfortunately, the Register continues to misunderstand or misrepresent the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was unveiled in 2012, before any talk of a lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works, because a more focused effort to improve water quality was needed.  It was clear that we needed a collaborative approach, bringing all sides together to make water quality improvements.

With that purpose in mind, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa DNR and scientists led by Iowa State University, working with a number of other partners, came together to create the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy is the framework outlining the conservation practices needed to achieve a 45 percent reduction in nitrates and phosphorus in our water.

With that in place, we started the hard work of implementation.

Farmers have shown they are willing to invest and adapt to address critical issues. Farmers have built millions of feet of terraces, miles of grassed waterways and adopted no-till and conservation tillage on millions of acres to reduce soil loss. To reduce nitrate levels, science shows in-field management alone will not meet the goals of strategy, additional in-field and edge-of-field practices are needed.

As we have begun implementing the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, getting more of those practices on the ground has been our goal. Through the initiative, more than 2,600 farmers have agreed to try a new conservation practice on their farm focused on water quality.  We also have 29 demonstration project located across the state to help implement and demonstrate water quality practices. More than 100 organizations are participating in these projects.

With this as the background, I was dumbfounded by the Register’s statement that “The irony here is that the lawsuit is the direct result of rural Iowa refusing to ‘cooperate’ and ‘work together’ toward a solution.”

Farmers, landowners, state and federal agencies, agriculture organizations, Secretary Tom Vilsack, Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa legislative leaders, agribusinesses, farmer cooperatives, Iowa Soil and Water Conservation Districts, cities, counties, Iowa colleges and universities, environmental groups and many others are all working together to address water quality.

Unfortunately, the outlier is the Des Moines Water Works, which has attempted to stand in the way of these collaborative efforts.

For example, earlier this year, the Pocahontas Record-Democrat reported that the Des Moines Water Works opposed a series of integrated drainage and wetland complexes in northwest and north-central Iowa.  Despite the opposition, the wetlands have now been built and water quality monitoring has shown that these pilot projects have performed at or above expectation, removing up to 90 percent of all nitrates from surrounding field drainage.

Finally, I want to take issue with the statement, “As long as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy remains voluntary, it will be nothing more than a pipe dream — a litany of actions that could, maybe, possibly, be taken, or could much more easily be ignored.”

This deeply cynical perspective is not supported by the evidence.  We continue to see thousands of farmers and landowners investing millions of dollars collectively to try new practices on their land.

This remains a long-term issue and additional private and public resources will be needed.  Earlier this fall, we highlighted more than $325 million in state and federal funds directed to programs with water quality benefits in Iowa last year.   Also, work is being done to better quantify private investments in water quality made by individual farmers, non-governmental organizations and others, but we know this additional investment to be in the tens of millions of dollars each year.

This is a start, but additional funding will be needed and there are a number of conversations taking place right now focused on identifying sustainable funding for water quality efforts going forward.

We will continue to move forward to address this important issue.  There is too much work to do to be pulled into blame games and finger pointing. Let’s continue to build on the work being done by the broad coalition focused on making water quality improvements.

Source: Des Moines Register

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