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By Staff | May 1, 2015

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has got a big job ahead that was made all the tougher by the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit filed against drainage districts in Northern Iowa for non-point source nutrient runoff.

He has been exceedingly sensitive to conservation concerns and has been diligently trying to bridge the gap in understanding between rural and urban populations in the discord over conservation approach. He has aggressively promoted voluntary conservation programs, participated in all efforts to develop responses to Gulf hypoxia, and I believe that he thought that real progress was being made protecting and improving water quality. It was not a short trip to get to the desired destination but we were on the right path before this drastic detour was taken.

Farmers invested $13.5 million in conservation measures in addition to $9.5 million by the state. Granted, Gov. Branstad vetoed additional conservation state spending that was strongly supported by Northey which is problematic on several levels. Branstad should have heeded Northey, but then again it would have probably made no difference to the DMWW. They want to tax farmers for nutrient runoff and mandate conservation practices regardless. What occurred was a sharp change in direction from voluntary incentivized conservation programs and practices that were derived from collective reasoning and partnership to a much harder “we are going to force change through regulation and litigation”. This was a very stark setback for civil discourse that I think will prove counterproductive.

Can the lawsuit be successful? Legal analysts claim that it encounters a high barrier of opposing precedent. The Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation offers the opinion that, “The law specifically states that the drainage of surface waters from agricultural lands and all other lands or the protection of such lands from overflow shall be presumed to be a public benefit and conducive to the public health, convenience and welfare. In other words, drainage districts exist to retain the productivity of farmland by ensuring that surface waters (which generally comprise rainwater) are not allowed to flood the land and take it out of production. The only federal case to address a similar claim suggests that DMWW’s claim will likely falter. In 2013, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled that farm drain tiles were not point sources of pollution. Another issue raised by this case is the propriety of filing suit against the county supervisors acting on behalf of the drainage districts.”

The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association quoted a DeWitt D.V.M. saying, “I find it hard to believe the DMWW actions are a true representation of how the majority of people of Des Moines feel about the situation. Reasonable people typically see lawsuits as a last resort instead of their first option.” I think he would be surprised at how the people of Des Moines feel about this.

The DMWW has been making presentations to service groups in Des Moines presenting what was described to me as denigrating depictions of farmers and conservation practices. One who was in attendance at one of these meeting presentations told me that the impression left was that we “are all rich farmers irresponsibly dumping crap in the rivers,” ruining water quality costing Des Moines water consumers. If someone stuck you in eye and called you bad names, how would you respond?

Northern Iowa has some of the world’s most fertile productive farmland. It must be drained in order for it to be farmed efficiently. In order to accomplish that, much of this land has been pattern tiled so subsurface waterlogged soils can be drained. This water runs into creeks and streams that eventually feed rivers. There is natural nitrification that occurs from organic breakdown even if cropland was prairie. Use of fertilizers actually has a low impact on the nutrient runoff which can be minimized with buffer strips. These voluntary measures have been highly promoted and their significant adoption is evident to anyone paying attention to the countryside.

Iowa’s crop productivity is important to the world and so is water quality. Farmers were not misusing fertilizer application as they try to grow corn for $3 bushel. Per bushel productivity per pound of fertilizer applied has shown significant gains so management has been effectively applied as well.

In my 40-year career in production agriculture, I have seen tremendous improvement in soil and water erosion control practices, yet the narrative being spread by urban interests is that somehow conservation is worsening. That is simply not true. The ISA said, “an analysis of thousands of water samples from 41 locations in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999 to 2014 found nitrate concentrations had decreased by nearly 25 percent.” The suit is unlikely to be successful in accomplishing anything but souring relations between the ag sector and Des Moines. It will destroy, rather than enhance working relationships. It will be a huge setback to the kind of climate dialog that Northey was attempting to grow. His job changed as a result of this lawsuit.

DMWW essentially decided that the voluntary discourse was moving too slow and so that they would adopt an adversarial approach to force farmers to do what they decide should be the desired response. That is not going over well and will not produce constructive results.

Northey responded, “I think we give up innovation and the attitude of producers being able to find out what works on their farm if regulators get too descriptive. I think we can get a lot more done in the next 25 years in a nonregulatory process than using lawsuits to create a regulatory process.” He really has his work cut out for him now.

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

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