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By Staff | Feb 13, 2015

I don’t think the Des Moines Water Works like farmers and agriculture very much.

The DMWW pulls their water from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers that have headwaters in Northern Iowa. When the phosphate and nitrate levels in the water get too high they have to treat it to reduce them to an acceptable level which increases their cost of treatment.

Sources claim that the treatment can cost $4,000 to $7,000 a day. They reportedly spent $900,000 on treatment in 2013. That may sound like a lot of money to an individual, but when spread over 500,000 Des Moines water users, it really is incidental.

DMWW wants to create trouble, assessing blame for the periodically high nitrate levels on agriculture and runoff from farmland. I believe that if there were no commercial agriculture on the lands drained by these rivers there would still be periodical spikes in nitrate levels caused by natural sources. The sky is blue, the earth is round and nitrates are soluble. They can’t sue God so they are trying to pin their liability on drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties. They are suing to recover alleged damages, but primarily their objective is to establish precedents so that they can go after agriculture later on for bigger paydays.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate nonpoint source pollution so the runoff that Des Moines blames on reducing their water quality isn’t covered. If you can’t cite a specific source then there is no entity to regulate, it is just natural circumstances. There is already some legal precedent that field drainage tiles are not considered point sources of pollution. In fact, soil drainage is typically seen as preferable to surface runoff due to the filtering that improves water quality.

The Water Works says “boulderdash” -it’s the farm drainage tiles that are to blame. If we would just leave all of northern Iowa an undrained wetland unsuitable to production agriculture and let a few people starve somewhere else as a result of the lost production, they might save a few bucks on their water treatment costs down there in Des Moines.

Production Ag leaders, including Ag Secretary Bill Northey, have been working very hard to placate the water quality critics by pushing conservation practices and controls that filter surface water runoff before entering streams and rivers to reduce nitrate levels. Farmers have actively participated in these conservation efforts. In terms of fertilizer management, farmers have significantly reduced the amount of fertilizer applied relative to per unit production, significantly increasing fertility efficiencies.

Nobody is purposefully trying to increase the nitrate levels of the rivers. They have been purposefully trying to reduce them through management practices

What is behind much of this is climate change. Western Iowa, including the region where Des Moines water is sourced, gets more rain than it used to. Good soils in Iowa can holds 10 to 12 inches of moisture in the subsoil profile. Amounts above that produce more surface runoff and require more tile drainage so Iowa streams and rivers are working harder than they used to drain Iowa farmland.

We have seen yields increase in western Iowa more comparable to eastern Iowa where they used to get higher rainfall levels than in western Iowa. We have now seen more frequent 4-inch rain events and higher monthly rainfall accumulations that exceed total soil water holding capacity. More drainage is going to occur because there is more excess water than there used to be 30 to 40 years ago.

Overall this is a good thing, boosting the grain productivity of region. One side effect however, is that we now have the Des Moines Water Works complaining about higher water treatment costs which are effectively the result of this climate change.

We are going to farm Iowa. If climate change increases rainfall levels and subsequently runoff there is only so much that farmers can effectively do to control it. They have been saying “yes” rather than “no” to cooperation but it hasn’t won them any friends down in Des Moines. Even Gov. Branstad labeled the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit a “declaration of war on rural Iowa” noting that the bill for water quality for Des Moines is not big in the overall scheme of things.

He is right. There is a bigger issue here. Many, who for one reason or another have issues with commercial agriculture, are piling on in support of this lawsuit simply because anything that they can use to stick it to the ag sector seems to make their day. Ironically, runoff from similar drainage systems of cities is not considered to be point-source pollution but they want to hold pipes draining excess water from farms fields to a different standard. My home town of Royal was once a swamp, part of 9 million acres in northern Iowa where the agricultural productivity has been dependent on farm drainage systems and with the implication of higher annual rainfall levels associated with climate change the region will be more dependent on draining excess water that soils can’t hold.

ISU says that to circumvent nature with nutrient reduction in Iowa rivers would cost $1.2 billion annually. That is compared to a half penny a day cost for water treatment for each of Des Moines water users who are looking for someone else to pay their penny for them. It would appear to me that the Des Moines water treatment is pretty cost effective by comparison and they cannot honestly tell where the nitrates come from.

While they chose to start with siccing their lawyers on three counties in Iowa they are coming after all of rural agriculture. In that case, rural legislators should be instructed by their constituents to be diligent in opposing anything that comes through the Iowa Legislature that benefits Des Moines.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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