Iowa Public Television


Farmers And Water Quality Officials Seek Common Ground On Farm Field Runoff

posted on August 9, 2013

Beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico lies a hypoxic region that has earned the dubious title of the “dead zone.” Due to its lack of oxygen, the area is incapable of supporting aquatic life.

According to a recent study from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the University of Michigan, this summer's "dead zone" covers 5,840 square miles of Gulf floor – just above the five-year average.

In Iowa, where net farm income topped $10 billion in 2011, water treatment plants have been working overtime to remove what researchers believe is the root cause of the problem - nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland runoff.

Bill Stowe is the CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works, a municipal operation supplying drinking water to a half-million central Iowan’s.

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works: "...certainly there are urban contributors to runoff and pollution. I don’t mean to disparage that, but the idea that “feeding the world” is somehow this password that lets us get by poisoning our neighbors is a real problem for me.”

Stowe believes the biggest misconception is that Iowa’s fertile fields that produce such agricultural abundance must also yield polluted water. He notes that nearby states like Minnesota and Wisconsin have achieved a balance between regulation and farming.

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works:  “If we were to avoid that, and as a state, fail to recognize that, and moving our policy forward, we are missing the largest opportunity for regulation and for improvement. A lot of regulation on the point source polluters in the urban areas, the sewage treatment facilities, the factories that discharge into the rivers, but essentially a free pass on the non-point agricultural sources which are the single largest contributor to water quality problems in Iowa.”

Craig Hill is president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa’s largest general farm organization with 153,000 members. Hill disagrees with Stowe’s premise that farmers and state officials are failing to protect Iowa’s water.

Craig Hill, President, Iowa Farm Bureau: "I think we are correct to asses that agriculture has much to do.  98 percent of all the rain drops that land on this state land on a farm somewhere. And these are family owned farms. So it’s incumbent upon us to do our best job. And we’re working it at, we are working on it. We can do better. ... I think our goals are aligned. We have to work together. We all want the end result to be the same."

Stowe believes regulations need to be put in place to protect Iowa’s water. While there are state and federal regulations controlling many aspects of production agriculture the responsibility for monitoring runoff from farms fields is left largely to the farmer.  Stowe dislikes the idea of self-regulatory policies because they lack the legal teeth that public policy provides.

Hill points out there are incentives in place to get farmers to adopt practices that reduce soil runoff and he’s concerned about the potential downside of a one-size-fits-all policy.

Iowa is among the 41 states that make up the Mississippi River basin. When rains, or high water, rush across rural farm fields and urban lawns some of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil runs into local rivers and streams. That chemical brew feeds algae blooms downstream. The algae -- and the protozoa that eat them -- die and fall to the bottom, where their decomposition depletes oxygen and creates the dead zone.

Farther upstream, Stowe and Hill believe there is common ground where both sides can work together to solve the problem.

Craig Hill, President, Iowa Farm Bureau: “Well, it is a balance. It is a public and private stakeholder relationship. A collaboration is going to have to be built.  We’re all in this together.... We will be successful. It’s a voluntary program, certainly, but success is not optional. We will be successful.”

Stowe adamantly believes agricultural runoff should be regulated by government authorities to protect water quality and, ultimately, reduce the size of the dead zone. And he’s threatened to sue the EPA, if necessary, to get it to enforce water quality standards if state officials fail to do so.

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.

Tags: Bill Stowe Craig Hill dead zone Des Moines Water Works farmland runoff Iowa Farm Bureau LUMCON nitrogen Phosphorus runoff