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DM speaks out against N and P in rivers

By Staff | Feb 6, 2014

BILL STOWE, chief executive officer and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, makes a point during a Jan. 29 frank discussion with farmers about rural land management practices and how they affect surface waters that reach Des Moines.

By LARRY KERSHNER

“mailto:kersh@farm-news.com”>kersh@farm-news.com

DES MOINES – A frank and forthright discussion on Jan. 29 was conducted at the Iowa Power Farming Show when Bill Stowe, chief executive officer and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, addressed runoff problems upstream that flow into Des Moines.

Stowe said the heavy rains of spring 2013 brought record amounts of nitrogen- and phosphorus-ladened water into Des Moines in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

He said the primary source of those nutrients come from farm lands upstream.

“Des Moines takes all of its drinking water from the rivers. We don’t have wells.” —Bill?Stowe CEO, general manager, Des Moines Water Works

“People don’t realize,” Stowe said, “that Des Moines takes all of its drinking water from the rivers.

“We don’t have wells.”

He said the impurities from the 2013 high-water times cost the utility $900,000 in 10 days to filter.

“We’ll advocate for clean water,” Stowe said. “It’s our biggest volume of raw material and if that’s threatened, we’ll talk about it.”

Stowe said he understands that agriculture is important to Iowa’s future, yet it’s the biggest contributor for nitrates in the rivers.

He said livestock in rivers is a lesser concern to him than chemical ammonia and phosphorus applications.

Nitrogen escapes from heavy rains as nitrates as it leaches from fields and enters surface waters through tile lines.

Phosphorus gets into waters from surface soil erosion.

“Tiling increases the amount of water that gets into the watersheds,” Stowe said. “We understand that it’s your business.

“And we won’t say anything until your business affects our business.”

He said the levels of nitrates in the rivers has had a steady uptrend since the Depression Era.

But 2013 was at an all-time high, he said.

“We were precariously close,” Stowe said, “of telling the public you’ll have to look for another water source.”

He reminded farmers that Iowa law deems that public waters are not private property and that “all have the right to draw water from it.”

He noted that lowering levels of N and P in surface waters by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a requirement for urban areas, but voluntary in rural areas.

“Nitrates can be present naturally,” he said, “but 2013’s levels were primarily from ag sources.

“We’re looking for more than a few volunteers, but more precision agriculture will help out.”

Curt Hansen, a Baxter-area farmer, said urban construction and over-fertilized lawns and golf courses also add to the problem.

Stowe agreed.

“But on a square-foot basis,” he said, “those sources are small compared to farming acres.

“Be realistic, those two rivers drain 10,000 square miles and 90 percent is under ag production.”

Stowe’s talk was hosted by Agnition, based in Balaton, Minn., which provides technologies that improve soil and plant health.

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