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Ag secretary reacts to nitrates lawsuit

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

ROCKWELL CITY – Iowa farmers were making major efforts to keep nitrogen and phosphorous out of the water long before a lawsuit was threatened, according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

”I think we’ve got a great story to tell,” he said Tuesday afternoon in Rockwell City.

Northey went to Calhoun and Sac counties, two of the three counties the leadership of the Des Moines Water Works have threatened to sue, on Tuesday to offer his support to farmers.

”Certainly at the state of Iowa we’ve got your back on this,” he said.

About 220 people filled a building at the Calhoun County Expo Center to hear Northey.

The Des Moines Water Works has issued a notice of intent to to sue Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties for alleged violations of environmental regulations. In the proposed lawsuit, attorneys for the Water Works are expected to argue that the three counties and the drainage districts within them have not done enough to prevent nitrates from getting into tributaries of the Raccoon River, which is a primary source of drinking water in the Des Moines area.

”What we’re dealing with here is absolutely unprecedented,” said Doug Struyk, the attorney for the Iowa Drainage District Association.

He said the lawsuit would most likely be filed in federal court.

Northey said voluntary steps rather than court-ordered actions are the best way to protect the water. Farmers, he said, already have a track record of taking such steps.

He said that four years ago, farm groups joined with experts from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University in Ames to create a Water Quality Initiative. That initiative provides financial help to farmers for planting cover crops, creating nutrient reduction wetlands and building bioreactors, which are ditches lined with woodchips. Microbes on the wood chips consume pollutants as water runs through the ditch.

Northey said farmers participate in those programs without being forced to do so.

”Often we run out of money before we run out of folks willing to do it,” he said.

According to Northey, Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed spending $7.5 million on the Water Quality Initiative in 2015-2016.

Dwight Dial, who farms near Lake City, told the gathering Tuesday afternoon that he has been using minimum tillage methods since the early 1980s to keep soil and nutrients on his ground.

”I would say this to Des Moines: I would like to give you no nitrogen,” he said. ”I would like to give you no phosphorous. I want it to stay in my soil and feed my crops.”

Dial said his fellow Calhoun County farmers are also doing everything they can to keep nutrients on their ground.

”They definitely don’t want to send it down the river,” he said.

Northey said some nitrogen will end up in the water no matter what farmers do.

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Ag secretary reacts to nitrates lawsuit

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey speaks to Sac County officials and farmers concerning the pending legislation threatened against them by the Des Moines Water Works Board.

SAC CITY – A notice of intent to sue three northern Iowa counties to keep nitrogen and phosphorous out of the water would impact everybody across the state, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said Tuesday.

Northey made his comments to a group of about 150 people at the Sac County Conservation Center.

“This affects everybody,” Northey said. “If this changes, it’s everybody across the area.”

Northey said Iowa’s farmers have been working for more than 40 years to try and lower the amount of phosphates that go into the water supply and that work has been done to lower nitrates as well.

“When you look at the nitrates out of the agricultural area, you can’t tell the source,” Northey said, adding the amount of nitrates varies from year to year depending on a number of factors, including rainfall.

He suggested that farmers and the state work together towards that common goal of reducing nitrates.

Northey also said he believes regulations are not the way to go, and suggested using “a voluntary system that encourages people to be involved.”

Regulations don’t count for all possible scenarios, according to Northey.

“There are so many permutations, which is why, to me, it’s a terrible thing to do in the regulatory way,” he said.

More regulations could end up discouraging farmers from doing their jobs for fear of being sued, Northey added.

At the same time, he encouraged all the farmers to keep working.

“Don’t let this distract you from the things you need to do,” he said.

Sac City farmer Gary Langbein, who attended the meeting, told Northey that he and the farmers he knows have come up with their own ways of reducing nitrates.

“Over the last few years, a lot of farmers I know … have done various terrace projects,” he said, which includes building their own terraces on their property. “I’ve seen a lot of things that can really improve nutrient reductions.”

Northey agreed with Langbein, and said farmers have done a great job of reducing the amount of nutrients that go into their water supply.

He added that the farmers of Sac County have many supporters.

“You are not alone in this process,” he said. “There are a lot of people who care about this.”

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