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Can voluntary conservation efforts work?

"Everyone has to choose from the menu. Everyone has to do something."

Mar 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm
    Tiling is underway in a field on the farm of Steve Berger near Wellman on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. The fields are also planted with a cover crop of rye. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

    With barely perceptible progress in Iowa’s effort to reduce nutrient pollution in surface waters, the state’s voluntary approach to private lands conservation is under increasing pressure and criticism.

    Believing that voluntary conservation will not work, many environmental groups urge that agriculture be subject to regulation.

    Regulation advocates say that farmers need rules to increase their participation rates; that bad actors have no incentives to improve their conduct; and that, as in all other industries, polluters should be required to stop polluting and to pay to clean up their messes.

    But advocates of voluntary efforts say that, unlike in seed corn caps, one size does not fit all when it comes to antipollution regulations; that, unlike regulated factories and wastewater treatment plants, farms operate outdoors in fickle weather; and that their operators have limited access to the engineers needed to design solutions and no ability to pass along to consumers the costs of their conservation efforts.


    They also say regulations would be too cumbersome and expensive and patience is needed to provide farmers sufficient time and resources to demonstrate progress.

    Both sides frequently cite a 2015 study by Associate State Geologist Keith Schilling as the best information available on the status of nitrate concentrations in the state’s surface waters.

    Schilling and colleagues analyzed data from 46 river monitoring stations from 1998 through 2012:

    — They found no statistically significant trend in 37 (or 80 percent) of them.

    — Six monitoring sites in western Iowa indicated statistically significant increasing trends and three other sites in western and southern Iowa showed nominally significant increasing trends.

    — Aggregated across the state, the overall trend of nitrate concentrations in Iowa rivers is increasing with an average and median rate of 0.05 and 0.03 milligrams per liter per year, respectively.

    The issue came to prominence in 2013 when state officials adopted the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary effort to achieve a 45 percent reduction in discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus with no target date assigned.

    The Des Moines Water Works raised the stakes in 2015 when it filed a federal lawsuit against three intensely agricultural northwest Iowa counties.

    Although runoff from farm fields has been considered nonpoint-source pollution, exempt from the strictures of the 1973 Clean Water Act, the water works lawsuit contends that such runoff, once collected by and discharged from farm tile drainage systems, is in fact point-source pollution.

    “We contend that pollution discharged from tile drainage districts and from large livestock confinements should be regulated under the Clean Water Act,” said Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works general manager.

    Stowe said water pollution in Iowa is “a classic example” of the tragedy of the commons, in which unrestrained use of a shared resource — the state’s water — has damaged that resource.

    “Farmers are acting in their own self-interest to the detriment of a resource Iowans hold in common,” he said.

    Jess Mazour, a water quality activist with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said she is “100 percent sure” voluntary conservation measures will not yield clean water.

    “It has not worked in the past. No industry has successfully regulated itself. Should it be voluntary whether you pollute our water?” she said.

    Mazour said her organization advocates that any medium or large livestock confinement facility be required to secure a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and meet its conditions. The state also should impose stricter limits of where, when and how manure can be applied to farm fields, she said.

    Joshua Mandelbaum, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Des Moines, said voluntary efforts so far simply have not reached enough farms, kept enough soil in place and stopped enough pollution to solve the problem.

    Iowa should establish numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus, adequately assess water quality, set benchmarks and track progress, Mandelbaum said.

    Organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke of Fairfield said he is not opposed to the allocation of public funds to help farmers adopt water quality practices, but said such funds should be tied to helping farmers meet regulation requirements.

    “All farmers need to participate,” said Thicke, a former candidate for secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

    Every Iowa farmer, he said, should be required to adhere to a plan that specifies the water quality practices to be used to address issues unique to each farm. Farmers would have the flexibility to adopt practices that would enable them to meet nitrate and phosphorus reduction goals outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, he said.


    Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, shares Thicke’s enthusiasm for requiring farmers to adopt “some combination of basic conservation practices” such as fertilizer management, no till or reduced tillage, vegetated stream buffers, cover crops and expanded plantings of perennial vegetation.

    As a model for the approach, both Thicke and Heathcote suggest the conservation compliance provision of the federal farm bill that requires conservation planning on highly erodible acres in exchange for eligibility for farm subsidies.

    David Osterberg, director of the Iowa Policy Project, said voluntary practices “are not exactly taking off like wildfire.”

    Osterberg and Thicke said row crop agriculture and tile drainage — two root causes of nutrient pollution — continue to expand, perhaps even faster than the adoption of conservation practices.

    “There has to be some deterrent for the people who are doing exactly what is causing the problem,” Osterberg said.

    Acknowledging that one size does not fit all in terms of conservation practices, Osterberg noted, “but everyone has to choose from the menu. Everyone has to do something.”

    Osterberg said increasingly wet growing seasons complicate efforts to curb nutrient pollution. “But you can’t blame rain. It’s your practices,” he said.

    Iowa farmers need many options to tailor practices to different soil types, landforms, rainfall and drainage patterns and kinds of operations, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, a lead author of the nutrient reduction strategy.

    Regulation will stifle creativity and limit innovations as farmers learn which practices are best suited to the needs of their fields, he said.

    Northey said it would take an almost incalculable amount of human and financial resources to measure the nutrients leaving 30 million acres of Iowa farmland and to ensure compliance of more than 80,000 farmers.

    Compliance becomes even more challenging given that almost 60 percent of Iowa farmland operates under the shared decision making of landlords and tenants, he said.

    “We will never eliminate nitrate from our rivers,” said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill.

    Organic nitrogen, he said, is a naturally occurring element abundant in Iowa’s nutrient laden prairie soils. Through the natural process of mineralization, organic nitrogen is converted into water soluble nitrate, which moves freely through the soil profile into surface water, Hill said.

    “What regulation is it that’s going to keep it out of Iowa’s surface water?” he asked.

    “It takes many years to realize the full benefits. You have to buy into it for the long term,”

    - Steve Berger

    Washington County farmer


    Hill estimated that it will take from $35 to $50 per acre — per year — to pay for conservation practices needed to meet the goals of the state’s nutrient reduction strategy.

    Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a champion of the voluntary approach, hastened to add that, “As long as it’s voluntary with progress.”

    Voluntary efforts that fail to yield declining levels of nutrient pollution will lead to regulation, he said.

    Corbett has helped forge what many call “the Cedar Rapids approach,” in which urban and rural interests collaborate in solving nutrient pollution problems to the benefit of both.

    That approach is exemplified in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, in which Cedar Rapids has joined with farmers and farm groups to reduce nutrient pollution and slow runoff in upstream Cedar River tributaries.

    Corbett said he thinks there has been more progress than most people realize.

    “Science has identified the successful techniques,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of putting together the resources to cut pollution.”

    Farmers have welcomed the Cedar Rapids approach, he added.

    “With the confrontational Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, farmers feel like there’s a target on their backs, and they appreciate a hand extended in cooperation,” he said.

    Washington County farmer Steve Berger is one of the best arguments that voluntary conservation works.

    Through a sustained and disciplined regimen of no-till cultivation and cover crops, Berger has plugged most of the leaks in the inherently leaky system of row crops raised on tile-drained farmland.


    But even with his meticulous practices, Berger said the nitrogen concentration in water leaving the half-dozen regularly monitored tile lines on his farm averages 13 parts per million — well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 ppm safe drinking water standard, but certainly not a problem after it is diluted in other flows entering the English River.

    Beside virtually eliminating soil erosion and sharply reducing runoff-related nutrient losses, those practices, he said, have improved his soil’s fertility and its ability to take the highs and lows out of wet and dry cycles.

    “It takes many years to realize the full benefits. You have to buy into it for the long term,” said Berger, who recommends that Iowans show patience with efforts to improve water quality.

    Regulating farm runoff in Iowa would be expensive and ineffective because of the scale and variability of agriculture in Iowa, said Sean McMahon, director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, established in 2014 by state corn, soybean and pork commodity groups to increase the pace and scale of implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

    McMahon said Iowa has about 92,000 farms, which compares with only 6,579 Major National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permittees and 87,000 non-major NPDES permittees in the entire nation as of July 2014.

    It is difficult to imagine, he said, how regulation would work at that scale, given that the number of nonpoint permittees in Iowa would be about the same as point source permittees throughout the nation.

    McMahon said farmers have not been given enough time to demonstrate how watershed planning and targeted conservation practices can work.

    “Everyone wants to see trend lines start to bend downward, and we are going to see the needle move first at the watershed scale,” he said.

    “We will probably be able to see that in a 10-year period in smaller watersheds” such as Miller and Wolf creeks, Cedar River tributaries involved in the Cedar Rapids-led Middle Cedar Partnership Project, McMahon said.

    Recently retired Linn County farmer Curt Zingula offers three steps for jump-starting efforts to reduce nutrient pollution:

    — Enhance and streamline technical assistance for installation of conservation projects

    — Create substantial investment tax credits for qualified conservation practices

    — Drop the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

    Zingula, whose effort to install a saturated buffer on his farm has been mired in red tape for a year, said the technical and financial application process is the weakest link in the system.

    Investment tax credits for conservation projects, he said, would unleash “the greatest conservation movement of all time.”

    Zingula described the lawsuit as “a call to resistance for farmers and landowners” and said the regulation it envisions would be doomed to failure.

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