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What's The Best Way to Keep Our Water Nutrient-Free?

There are a lot of nitrates flowing into the Des Moines Waterworks plant. The fact of the matter is agriculture is part -- just one of many parts -- of the problem.

That problem is fairly clear. Its solution, on the other hand, isn't as clear. Leaders are split as to which approach -- clear-cut regulation or the encouragement of practices to cut nutrient runoff into surface waterways -- will be more effective in eliminating the issue whose consequences stretch way beyond the edges of the Corn Belt.

The topic of whether mandated or voluntary practices comprise the most effective approach to slowing the flow of nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorous, into waterways that eventually provide municipal water to around half a million people in central Iowa was debated Wednesday by leaders on the two sides of the issue, Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey and Des Moines Water Works director Bill Stowe. The two leaders have a common goal in mind -- the sustenance of a clean water supply for both the ag and non-ag population. How to get there is a different story.

"Our nutrient-reduction strategy is failing. Philosophically, the environmental protection improvements and water quality breakthroughs have come through managed government programs," Stowe says. "Voluntary action, to me, is an oxymoron."

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Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey (photo by David Ekstrom).

Yet Northey says voluntary programs for nutrient runoff reduction on farms in the watersheds feeding Des Moines Waterworks -- those for which participation is incentivized by agriculture leaders and comprise ground-level practices like cover crops and buffer strips -- are most likely to put a dent in the amount of nitrogen and phosphate runoff in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, which feed the city's water plant.

"If we take a regulatory approach now, we would have to spend 10 years figuring out whose problem it is. Then, what guarantee do we have that the same problems will never happen again? To say that they never will happen again is impossible," Northey says. "[Nutrient reduction runoff reduction] is more likely if we engage producers and make practices work for them."

Northey adds there are practices today that are already reducing ag nutrient runoff; cover crops, for example, are cutting that runoff by 30%, and managed wetlands fed by tile drainage -- of which there are 70 in the state of Iowa alone -- have the potential to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by up to 70%, the Iowa ag leader says.

There's a scientific angle to both approaches to nutrient runoff reduction. On one hand, Northey says a regulation-only approach would go a long way to actually limiting farmers' ability to handle the problem.

"A lot of the technologies that will be part of the strategy will be discovered in the next 10 years. A hard regulatory system would use today's technology and lock them into practice," Northey says. "We want to engage farmers so they want to be part of a successful strategy. And, we haven't done things that encourage new technology."

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Des Moines Waterworks' Bill Stowe (photo by David Ekstrom)

The same scientific approach -- but more importantly, the data that tact can generate -- is just as critical to a successful regulatory approach to cutting down nutrient runoff into the waterways that feed municipal supplies. But even though he disagrees about the effectiveness of voluntary programs vs. mandates, Stowe agrees that the implementation of ag technology can go a long way to aiding the cause.

"Ultimately, where our organizations disagree is on the time frames for change. We do not have an infinite number of years to see a 45% reduction in nitrates in our water. The best way to get rid of me is to show me results. I have to rely on data. The nutrient reduction plan has no data or time frame, which leaves us stuck in this philosophical argument," Stowe says. "Precision agriculture has tremendous potential. I commend the ag community and the number of providers in the ag community for moving toward more precision ag and changes based on real science."

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