Des Moines tries to cooperate to reduce agricultural runoff

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DES MOINES, Iowa — A Des Moines utility has been engaged in a years-long fight to clean drinking water from rivers teeming with agricultural pollutants, filing lawsuits, proposing legislation and even public shaming for trying to force farmers to reduce runoff from their fields.

None of that worked, so Des Moines Water Works is trying a less combative approach – inviting farmers to learn the latest techniques to reduce pollution on the riverside corn and soybean plots in the sprawling park where the utility filters the city’s drinking water.

“I think it’s great to have the farmers here and show what can be done,” said Jessica Barnett, who oversees management of the 1,500-acre (2.3 square mile) park just over one mile from downtown.

It’s a surprising twist in a long-running dispute between the state’s dominant industry and a utility that provides clean water to 600,000 customers in Iowa’s largest metro area.

Des Moines Water Works has complained for years that nitrates and phosphorus from agricultural fertilizers wash onto fields, leaving rivers so polluted that the utility fears even its sophisticated and expensive equipment cannot purify the water. Utility efforts to hold some upstream counties legally accountable for the pollution have failed, and Republicans who control the legislature and governor’s office have repeatedly rejected regulation, instead backing voluntary programs too limited to succeed. to real improvements.

This story makes the deal between Landus, the state’s largest farmer-owned grain cooperative, and Water Works all the more surprising. Or as Landus President and CEO Matt Carstens put it, “It’s an unlikely partnership.”

In some ways, Carstens and Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said the new initiative is only possible because earlier, more divisive approaches have failed.

“Everything we’ve tried in the past hasn’t been as effective as it could have been,” Carstens said.

As part of the plan, Landus planted corn, soybeans, and a cover crop of rye and red clover on three plots totaling about 12,000 square feet (1,100 square meters) near a bend in the Raccoon River that , along with the Des Moines River, meets the city’s water needs.

Landus plans to bring in around 500 farmers over the summer to examine the plots and learn how they can confidently reduce their fertilizer use, with more advanced monitoring and by planting cover crops that grow alongside the crop. main and naturally infuse the soil with nitrate. .

Dan Bjorkland, a soil expert at Landus, said he was particularly hopeful the company’s efforts would encourage more planting of cover crops, now used by less than 10% of Iowa farmers despite the obvious benefits. preventing erosion and creating healthy soil. Some farmers may be more willing to consider planting cover crops as fertilizer prices hit record highs due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted supply chains.

“We have the technology in agriculture today to apply exactly what you need,” Bjorkland said. “I call it the Goldilocks method of nutrient management. You don’t want too much but you have to have enough to get the production you need.”

Jeff Frank, a corn and soybean farmer from northwest Iowa who attended a presentation on the new effort last week, said farmers were encouraged to apply more fertilizer than needed to grow. make sure they had enough.

“We were trained that way, to deposit a little more, to have a little in the bank,” Frank said. “Technology has come a long way and it’s not anymore.”

Corrigan, of Water Works, said he hopes the demonstration plots as well as other efforts by local governments to build buffer zones along streams will pay off in cleaner water. Corrigan also credited Landus for recognizing that large-scale agriculture must take the lead in cleaning up Iowa’s waterways.

But Corrigan said he still believes some form of increased regulation is needed to significantly reduce runoff from the state’s roughly 85,000 farms.

“I don’t think it can be done without some sort of legislative action that sets minimum expectations and what we’re doing now is showing that it can be done. Agriculture and clean waterways can co-exist,” he said. he declared. “And maybe one day the Legislative Assembly will see that it can be done and say that everyone has to do it.”

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