Pilot wetlands project improves ag drainage
Shawn Richmond of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa explains how a new wetlands improvement project works and how it benefits the land.
Seven years after Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit that ignited a national debate about farm pollution, the central Iowa utility is joining the state agriculture department and others in an effort to expand cover crop use.
The $600,000 initiative is the first time Des Moines Water Works and the Iowa Department of Agriculture have partnered on a project since the utility filed the lawsuit in 2015, alleging that drainage districts in northwest Iowa were funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River.
The utility relies on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers to provide drinking water for 600,000 central Iowa residents.
John Swanson, a Polk County watershed management authority coordinator, said he thinks the agreement is important and will help establish trust between rural and urban Iowans.
“I think this will go a long way to mending fences,” said Swanson, who works with farmers on conservation projects. “I think we’ll be doing a lot more of it.”
The Des Moines Water Works and agriculture department are coming together with the city of Des Moines and Polk County to buy a high-clearance seeding machine that officials believe will allow farmers to more successfully plant cover crops.
Often planted in the fall after Iowa’s corn and soybean crops have been harvested, cover crops blanket the soil during the winter, preventing erosion and loss of nitrogen and phosphorus that can run off in spring rains and pollute Iowa’s waterways.
“What happens upstream impacts the safety of our drinking water and the recreation in our rivers and lakes for everyone in Polk County,” said Angela Connolly, the Polk County Board of Supervisors chairwoman.
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“We know the utilization of cover crops can have a tremendous impact on reducing nutrient load from agricultural operations in our surface water and groundwater, and improve soil health,” Connolly said in a statement.
While nitrogen and phosphorus are critical to fertilizing growing plants, Des Moines Water Works and other utilities spend thousands of dollars annually to remove nitrates from drinking water so it’s safe for consumers to drink.
High nitrate and phosphorus levels also can feed toxic algae blooms that create toxins called microcystins that utilities have limited ability to remove. Some people exposed to toxic algal blooms while swimming or during other recreational activities have reported health problems including headaches, sore throats and nausea.
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Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said the department has partnered with hundreds of groups since the state began implementing its Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The plan seeks to cut by 45% the nitrogen and phosphorus that leaches from the state, ultimately flowing into the Mississippi River and contributing to a dead zone around its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, where an area equal to about 4 million acres is unable to support aquatic life.
“We’ve seen success implementing conservation practices through partnerships and collaboration — not through litigation or regulation,” Naig said in an email. The state is “interested in working with anyone who is willing to work together to implement more conservation practices.”
Collaboration seeks to achieve goals of both farmers, utility
The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit sought to have north Iowa drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, regulated under the federal Clean Water Act as a “point source” of pollution, much like businesses and manufacturing plants.
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit in 2017, saying the water works “may well have suffered an injury” from the high nitrate levels, but that the drainage districts in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties had no power to address the issue.
Ted Corrigan, Des Moines Water Works CEO, said the utility’s goal always has been to improve the water quality in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. It’s looking for collaborative, creative ideas that “have the potential to make large-scale change,” he said.
Iowa farmers planted an estimated 2 million acres of cover crops, covering a fraction of the nearly 23 million acres they used to grow corn and soybeans last year.
Corrigan said he hopes the new initiative will help farmers overcome some of the risks they face growing cover crops.
Farmers often hire pilots to scatter cover crop seeds over growing crops, but they risk the seed not getting through the vegetation and reaching the ground, said John Swanson, a Polk County watershed management authority coordinator.
Farmers also may drill the cover crop seeds into the soil in the fall, but they risk not getting enough rain or warmth for them to grow, Swanson said.
With the seeder, “Our goal here is to provide an alternate seeding method that has proven to be a lot more successful,” he said.
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Water Works hopes for future partnerships
The county plans to buy one of Deere & Co.’s first cover crop seeders, which resembles a modified high-clearance Hagie Manufacturing sprayer, with tubes along its 120-foot boom that can push cover crop seeds between growing plants in July or August, when the warmth and moisture the seeds need to germinate are usually abundant.
That will give the seeds more time grow, Swanson said. The groups also are partnering with Heartland Cooperative to provide farmers with experts to help them decide when to plant in the growing season — and when to kill the cover crops in the spring, generally with a herbicide.
In addition to the risks of planting cover crops, farmers who kill the crop too late in the spring before planting corn or soybeans can face significantly reduced yields, Swanson said.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture will provide up to $350,000 for the initiative, with the amount based on the number of acres planted. Des Moines Water Works is providing $25,000, the city of Des Moines $75,000 and Polk County $150,000.
Farmers, who typically pay $30 to $40 per acre to plant cover crops, can qualify for one of several existing cost-share programs, Swanson said.
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Corrigan said he hopes this initiative provides the foundation for future partnerships with the state agriculture department and other farm groups.
“Our customers expect us to advocate and support projects that we think will have a real possibility to make significant difference in our watersheds,” he said.
Despite the lawsuit, Swanson said the groups can better accomplish their goals by working together:
Farmers want to reduce nutrient losses. Des Moines and Polk County want to reduce flooding, and Des Moines Water Works wants to cut nitrate and other pollutants.
Polk County is using some American Recovery Act Program funding for the project, and the Iowa agriculture department is using money from the state’s Water Quality Initiative.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.