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Clock is Ticking in Terms of Boosting Iowa Water Quality

The Specter of Regulation and Lawsuits Still Looms.

The way Kirk Leeds sees it, Iowa farmers have a limited amount of time to make significant water-quality improvements.

“The clock is ticking,” says the chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). “We cannot depend on PR and positive stories. We have to have real improvement in water quality.”

Leeds and other ISA officials visited with Successful Farming magazine staff earlier this week regarding water quality and other issues. Metrics such as a certain amount of cover crops help.

“Ultimately, we will have to show real improvement in water quality to satisfy the public’s rights to clean water and access to public recreation,” he says. “We set out a long time ago to collect data on the best strategies to improve water quality and how it impacts the whole watershed. If we get to the point where regulations are more likely or staring us in the face, we will have that data that few other agricultural organizations have. At the very least, it will give us the opportunity to (positively) impact those regulations.”

Banning or restricting fall nitrogen (N) applications is often mentioned as a way to boost water quality. However, ISA data show banning fall N applications will not significantly improve water quality.

“Fertilizer is part of the equation, but it is a small part of the equation,” adds Chris Hay, ISA senior environmental scientist. “It didn’t create the problem, and it won’t be part of the whole solution.”

The sea of corn and soybeans that predominates the Upper Midwest owes it success to rich soils, says Hay. Unfortunately, this successful system is also a leaky one when it comes to nitrates. Perennial grasses that predominated the prairie before the arrival of European settlers nixed many nitrates from entering streams and rivers. That vegetation is devoid in a traditional row-crop system.

“When you don’t have active growing vegetation (in spring and fall), organic matter mineralizes,” says Hay. The resulting mobile nitrates can them move into tile lines and ultimately streams and rivers. The good news is that current crop systems can be tweaked so vegetation can tie up in nitrates in spring and fall, when soils are prone to nitrate loss.

“We have opportunities to bring perennials back into the system to take advantage of them,” he says. For example, there may be less economical parts of landscapes where perennials could play a role.

Lawsuits Loom

Regulations aren’t the only concern regarding water quality. The specter of lawsuits still looms, too. In January 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) in its attempt to pursue damage payments as part of a lawsuit against three Iowa County Boards of Supervisors in the northern Iowa counties of Calhoun, Buena Vista, and Sac. 

“They (DMWW) went after the weak link with drainage districts,” says Leeds. However, the Court ruled that the drainage districts could not do what DMWW wanted them to do, he says. Leeds doesn’t think DMWW will institute any more lawsuits. There may be other entities that will, though.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we will face additional lawsuits,” he says. The same goes with regulators. Although the Iowa legislature, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, and the Trump administration have worked to lessen regulatory loads on farmers, that could change, says Leeds.

“We are one election away from having different people in charge,” he says. “Bill Northey (former Iowa agriculture secretary and current USDA Undersecretary) has been quite vocal that we should not be overly dependent on an individual who happens to be secretary of agriculture for a term. Elections come and go, and as they typically do, the pendulum can swing too far. We are quite supportive, as is all of agriculture in terms of (reducing) regulations and environmental rules, but you do have to be careful of overreach. Sooner or later, there will have to be improvements in water quality.”

That’s where data collection comes into play. Algorithms used for predictive modeling in digital agriculture hinge on collecting large amounts of good-quality data, says Ed Anderson, ISA senior director of research. Ultimately, this will help farmers use practices that help boost water quality, he says.

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