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Iowa moving up in water quality efforts

By Staff | Dec 12, 2015

STATE REP. MIKE SEXTON address farmers Thursday at the Farm News Ag Show, documenting progress Iowa farmers are making in preventing nitrate and phosphorus escapes from their fields.

FORT DODGE – Using a series of seven conservation practices, Iowa farmers have:

1). Lowered the erosion rate of their fields by 26 percent since 1982.

2). Have measured a steady decline in nitrates from major Iowa rivers since the early 1990s.

3). Have measured steady or declining levels of herbicides and insecticides in Iowa Corn Belt waterways.

4). Eliminated the use of moldboard plows resulting in fewer dirt-black ditches during winter.

“Let’s fix this before the EPA comes in and tells us how to do it.” —State Rep. Mike Sexton R-Rockwell?City

These conservation improvements were presented Dec. 3 by State Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, during the Farm News Ag Show at Iowa Central Community College’s east campus in Fort Dodge.

But despite these improvements, farmers cannot afford to relax their efforts for improving water quality, Sexton told an audience of about 60 grain growers.

Sexton was scheduled to appear in a community forum on water quality issues with Bill Stowe, chief executive officer and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works.

Stowe notified Farm News Dec. 1 that he canceled his appearance, citing other issues “that require I stay close to Des Moines.” Stowe did not offer to send anyone in his place to offer farmers DMWW’s perspective of the nitrate loads in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.

DMWW filed a lawsuit in March, naming 10 drainage districts in the counties of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac claiming 10 violations of the Clean Water Act. The trial is scheduled to be heard in district court in August 2016.

With the podium to himself, Sexton outlined how farmers have increased corn yields by 40 percent since 1975, using just an increase of 12 percent of nitrogen.

As to the causes of nitrate escapes from fields into surface waters, Sexton said it was less an issue of mismanaged use of nitrogen fertilizers, as a mistiming of their applications.

One of the seven tools Iowa farmers have been employing is split applications of fertilizer, applying nitrogen closer to the time the plants need it.

In addition, Sexton said Iowa has some of the most fertile soils in the world with, on average, 10,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre naturally occurring in organic matter.

“But most of that N is not plant available,” he said. “It will be in time, but until then we have to add it.”

And that leads to nitrate leaching, especially during heavy rains, when water is flushed from fields through tile lines.

Nitrogen attaches itself to soil and does not leach out, or move unless the soil erodes. During warm, moist times, microbes break the nitrogen down to plant-available nitrates. However, nitrate does not attached to the soil, so it leaches out through tile lines.

Sexton quoted from an undated Iowa State University ag water study paper by researchers Matt Helmers and Michael Castellano, “Almost all nitrate loss to Iowa waterways occurs when soils are warm, and moist, but crops are not using soil nitrate. If there is no crop to use soil nitrate, some is lost to waterways – especially during heavy precipitation.

“Reaching water quality goals will require broad implementation of many practices.”


Sexton reviewed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, whose goal is to reduce nitrate from waterways reaching the Mississippi River by 45 percent and phosphorus levels by 29 percent. No deadline has been set for reaching these goals, but Sexton warned farmers that significant improvement must be verifiable within the next few years to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from moving in and regulating how row crops are planted and managed in Iowa.

The INRS is an effort by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to get farmers to voluntarily comply with the program.

Since the 2013 implementation of the INRS, Sexton said farmers have invested $13 million in their own funds to implement soil conservation practices, with an additional $9.5 million state and federal cost-share funds.

Since then, he said, Iowa has seen a drop in surface erosion by 26 percent, have enrolled 708,000 acres into the federal Conservation Reserve Program – which leads the country with 11 percent of the national total- and has 377,000 acres in restored wetlands, fourth best in the U.S.

Sexton’s powerpoint slides reviewed a series of water improvement efforts by conservation-minded farmers prior to the INRS approval.

These include:

A). Seven practices that can be used on Iowa farms estimated to prevent as much as 28 percent of nitrate, 38 percent of nitrogen and 58 percent of phosphorus from waterways.

B). Reduced tillage and no-till land practices have steadily gained in Iowa since 1989. Conservation tillage was used on 60 percent of Iowa’s planted acres in 2008 and no-till has grown four-fold in Iowa since 1989.

C). From 1998-2012, 60 river monitoring sites in Iowa indicated that 80 to 90 percent of the sites showed no significant trend, up or down, regarding the direction of nitrate concentrations.

D). In 2012, an unnamed study found no increasing trend of nitrogen concentrations in the Raccoon River from 1993-2008. The study said most of the nitrogen spikes were due to rainfall with warm weather.

Sexton said that since 2006, water testing showed a downward long-term trend of nitrates in the Raccoon River, showing 76 percent of the daily raw river water have nitrates levels below the federal standard for drinking water.

What’s next?

When asked what happens after the lawsuit, Sexton offered two scenarios.

1). If DMWW loses, he fears the state’s policy-makers will reallocate cost-share funds for INRS efforts to other programs; plus he fears farmers will say, “Why worry about it?”

2). If DMWW wins, ag commodity groups will appeal the decision. He thinks it could eventually end up with the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, he fears lawmakers will still reallocate INRS funding.

As for public relations, Sexton said, “Either way, we all get a black eye.”

Sexton urged farmers not to relent on their water quality practices, or if they have not adopted any, to do so. The EPA is looming in the background, regardless of the lawsuit, he said.

“Let’s fix this before the EPA comes in and tells us how to do it,” Sexton said. “I don’t think anyone wants to go to that.”

Jim Patton, former ISU Extension director for Region 8, said he understands that implementing new practices while farm profits are dwindling is hard.

“But it doesn’t take much money to switch to most of these practices,” he said. “Take care of the soil or it goes downstream.

“Let’s stop blaming others and let’s be more proactive.”

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