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Des Moines Register- Water Runoff Issues, Conservation- Clean Water Act

A pair of articles on the front page of Wednesday’s Des Moines Register highlighted water runoff issues and conservation practices taking place in the Hawkeye State. The variables noted in the articles have broader connections in the debate over farm conservation policy development beyond Iowa and also could potentially impact how the Clean Water Act is viewed.

Timothy Meinch reported that, “Des Moines Water Works will file a federal suit against three rural counties in northwest Iowa, an action that could trigger far-reaching effects on how states approach water quality regulation.

“The action follows a 60-day warning that sparked little promise for solving water quality concerns at Water Works, according to utility trustees. The board voted unanimously during a special meeting Tuesday to file a lawsuit against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties.”

The article explained that, “Water Works officials and a crowd of supportive residents criticized the state’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy for farmers. They said it is insufficient for protecting Iowa waterways…[The legal suit] claims drainage districts act as a conduit, channeling fertilizer and manure between farm fields and waterways. Water Works officials said these districts should be regulated with special permits under the Clean Water Act.”

Mr. Meinch added that, “Water Works officials say rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers will soon require a new nitrate removal facility in Des Moines that could cost $80 million to $100 million.”

Also on the front page of today’s paper, Donnelle Eller reported that, “With decades of conservation farming under his belt, Dwight Dial has a hard time understanding why Des Moines Water Works is so intent on suing three northwest Iowa counties for contributing to high nitrates in the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for roughly 500,000 residents in central Iowa.

“‘We’re not deliberately dumping our nitrogen into the Raccoon or Des Moines river systems,’ said Dial, who raises corn, soybeans and pigs near Lake City in Calhoun County, a target of the Des Moines lawsuit along with Sac and Buena Vista counties.

“‘We’re doing everything we can to retain nutrients in the field for our plants. … But we can’t control Mother Nature.'”

Ms. Eller noted that, “Rural residents say they are unsure what the Des Moines utility sees as the remedy to its high nitrate levels — or why it is suing a few sparsely populated counties that have little power to influence farming operations.

“‘I’ve never heard what Des Moines Water Works thinks the fix is,’ said Tom Smith, who feeds about 3,000 to 4,000 cattle annually and raises 1,300 acres of continuous corn with two brothers southeast of Storm Lake.

“‘If they think we need to use less nitrogen, the (board of) supervisors have no power over that,’ Smith said. ‘They’re going after the wrong people.'”

Today’s Register article stated that, “Des Moines utility leaders have said they hope the lawsuit will lead to new federal regulations on farmers in Iowa, and potentially across the nation.”

Agricultural runoff is now exempt from the federal Clean Water Act. But the utility wants to force farmers to be treated the same as wastewater treatment plants or factories, which must request permits outlining the runoff that leaves their facilities,” Ms. Eller reported.

Today’s article pointed out that, “Farmers say extreme weather, such as recent droughts and flooding, is influencing nitrate loading — something they can’t control.

Still, farmers invested $13 million last year, on top of $9.5 million by the state, on conservation practices such as buffer strips, terraces and cover crops to keep nutrients from getting into Iowa rivers and streams.”