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Good cop, bad cop on nutrient management

At its annual meeting in Des Moines this week, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation is promoting the state's voluntary nutrient management plan, showcasing some of its most conservation-minded members -- farmers like Jeff Pape of Dyersville, whose Hewitt Creek Watershed Council has made measurable reductions in nitrogen and phosphorous going into that northeast Iowa stream.

But just in case no one is taking Iowa's Water Quality Initiative seriously, Don Parrish had arrived from the American Farm Bureau Federation's Washington office to share EPA's plans for regulating water quality.

Parrish, senior regulatory relations director for the national group, said that EPA is about to propose regulations that would treat streams, even ditches, that carry water toward rivers as the "navigable waters" that are subject to the Clean Water Act.

EPA hasn't released the new rule, which was leaked to Bloomberg in early November, although the scientific study it will use to justify it was posted on the agency's website in September.

Parrish showed maps and aerial photos of farms that suggest that even waterways that carry storm runoff through crop fields might be regulated.

"That's what we're talking about. We're talking about bringing the Clean Water Act right to your door," he said.

Some states that administer EPA Clean Water Act regulations in the Chesapeake Bay region already have tough regulations; Maryland's are the toughest. In that state, all potential sources of nutrients, from farms to sceptic tanks on home sites, are regulated. If a consumer buys a new house with a new sceptic tank, the buyer has to pay for an offset somewhere else. That zero-sum approach will limit economic activity in the region, he said.

"This is a bleak picture. I think it's the future of the Chesapeake Bay. I don't want it to be the future elsewhere," he told Iowa Farm Bureau members.

Parrish said he expects EPA to start pushing its broader enforcement of pollution regulation in navigable waters in 2014. Whether that affects Iowa farmers that soon isn't clear. EPA's new administrator, Gina McCarthy, praised Iowa's voluntary program during a brief visit to the Iowa State Fair last summer.

In one of his slides showing the potential effects of broadening the definition of navigable waters, Parrish showed storm runoff flowing through a cornfield, and suggested that any chemicals the farmer applied there might eventually be regulated.

After he spoke, Curt Zingula, a Farm Bureau member from Linn County, told Parrish that the field in his slide should have had a grassed waterway.

"I believe some 15% to 20% of our farmers are causing a great deal of problems for the rest of us," Zingula told Parrish.

Zingula, who uses GPS to apply fertilizer at variable rates on his own farm, also has grassed waterways and is no-tilling into soybeans.

Phil Sunblad, a district director for Iowa Farm Bureau, said at the end of Parrish's talk that Iowa farmers need to do two things: Get involved by submitting comments to EPA on its proposed Clean Water Act regulations, and participate in the state's voluntary efforts to reduce nutrients entering Iowa streams.

"It's not the neighbor's problem. It's not the guy in the next county. Do something on your farm," urged Sunblad, who farms near Albert City, Iowa.

For eight years, three-fourths of the farmers in the 23,000-acre Hewitt Creek watershed have been doing exactly that. Prompted by public exposure to the Creek when it runs through the "Field of Dreams" movie site near Dyersville, the farmers formed a voluntary organization to clean the stream.

"We have people coming from all over walking right next to the stream," said Jeff Pape, who farms 600 acres of crops and custom farms another 800.

With help from a $90,000 grant from Farm Bureau, federal conservation programs and state funds, the group has put a variety of practices on their dairy, beef, hog and crop farms, including cover crops, bioreactors to reduce nitrates in water from drainage tiles, and 114,655 feet of voluntary grassed waterways that are at least 30 feet wide.

"If you can reduce your sediment delivery to your streams, you're going to be reducing your phosphorous going to streams," Pape said. That effort has helped reduce phosphorous going into the stream watershed by 10,778 pounds per year, he said.

The changes are incremental and slow, something that can't be done in three years or five years, Pape said. "This is a forever project. It won't end, in my opinion," Pape said.

But already, the progress is showing. Eagles have returned to catch fish from the stream in winter.

And on the farms in the watershed, unused nitrogen fertilizer applied before the drought of 2012 was captured by cover crops, enough to give a 10- to 15-bushel boost to corn yields this year.

The complexity of reducing nitrogen and phosphorous loads in streams is one reason Parrish is concerned about blanket approaches that EPA regulations could bring.

In Iowa, researchers at Iowa State University are looking at the best ways to manage nitrogen to keep excess amounts out of streams.

“Think ‘writing a novel’ vs. ‘writing a recipe,’ ” said Matthew Helmers, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, where he is working with teams of scientists who are field-testing promising strategies, using a systems approach.

Some of the work Helmers and others are doing is summed up in an Iowa State news release issued Tuesday.

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