Going against the flow on water quality issues

Strong leadership is needed to address problem of deteriorating water quality

As summer heats up so too will agriculture’s ongoing water quality problems.

On July 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that Lake Erie’s algal bloom will be “more severe in 2015” due to “historic rains in June.” On a scale of 1 to 10, forecasts NOAA, this year’s bloom will be 8.7, far higher than 2014’s mark of 6.5 “when Toledo suffered its drinking water problem.”

The problems don’t stop in Ohio.

Iowa’s water war — you may recall that the Des Moines Water Works sued three, hog-heavy Iowa counties last spring for high nitrate levels it said contaminated the city’s drinking water — began to boil anew July 7 after the Des Moines Register published an op-ed by Dennis Keeney, the now-retired, first director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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Keeney, a plain-spoken native son as well as a distinguished agronomy professor at Iowa State and the University of Wisconsin, chides “Midwest agricultural leaders” and Iowa’s politicians for choosing “to ignore the warning signs” of the state’s worsening water quality problems for decades.

He then lists the names of those he says have chosen to “issue a stream of denials” instead of using their leadership positions for “embracing and forwarding solutions” to address Iowa’s deteriorating water quality over the last 30 years.

The list includes long-serving Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, the “Farm Bureau,” former Iowa ag secretary Patty Judge, “agricultural industries,” and two previous Democratic governors, Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack, now the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

“Where were these leaders when action would have helped create an environmentally sustainable agriculture?” asks Keeney. “(W)eak leadership,” he asserts, “crosses political lines” and “… responds not to the need of the residents of Iowa, but to the need to keep Iowa agriculture humming along on its pathway to industrial domination.”

So, Keeney writes, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit was a long time coming.

What wasn’t a long time coming was a smoking-hot reply from Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack. The Register posted his response on its website less than 24 hours after Keeney lit the fire under the water kettle.

Vilsack noted that as governor, then as secretary, he had “made water quality a state priority.” In fact, he had established Iowa’s first “comprehensive water-monitoring program,” sponsored its first “Water Quality Summit,” and helped shepherd $2.2 billion in federal money to “Iowa alone” for conservation programs since taking over the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009.

Right, and the result — like that of most local, state, and federal water quality programs aimed at farms and ranches for decades — has been that “Iowa’s water quality has continued to deteriorate,” four prominent Iowa ag leaders wrote in reply to Vilsack. “We cannot expect different results if we continue to do the same thing.”

What these four leaders (Francis Thicke, a farmer and soil scientist; Fred Kirschenmann, former director and distinguished fellow of the ISU’s Leopold Center; Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education; and Keeney) propose is a “middle ground”: farm-level water quality plans — much like today’s mandated, farm-level soil conservation plans — backed by federal dollars to initiate the use of local “practices that fit (Iowa’s) own farms.”

And, suggest the four, “A good place to pilot (or test) farm-level quality plans would be in the Iowa drainage districts being sued by the Des Moines Water Works for discharging nitrate into the Raccoon River.”

That’s a rock-solid idea that could get farmers and municipalities to work together to begin to address today’s big-and-getting-bigger water quality problems while pre-empting lengthy, costly and — like the just-confirmed American Farm Bureau-financed Chesapeake Bay appellate defeat — losing lawsuits.

Mr. Secretary, your turn.

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