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Lawsuit dismissal catalyst to conservation

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By Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer

Farmers look forward to continuing water quality improvement efforts, which they say were bolstered by the dismissal of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Strand threw out the water work’s lawsuit filed two years ago against three northwest Iowa counties. The suit alleged boards of supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties allowed agricultural drainage tile in drainage districts — under county supervisor control — to funnel nitrates into the Raccoon River, a primary source water for the utility.

The water works sought compensation to pay for nitrate removal costs. It also wanted drainage tiles to be considered point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act, which would require federal discharge permits. Utility officials blamed farmers for water pollution, and they hoped the suit would bring about more regulations on agriculture.

Strand dismissed the suit for lack of standing considering drainage districts’ limited status under Iowa law and ruled that the state legislature was the proper venue to address the issue. The Iowa Supreme Court earlier shot down the water works’ attempts to collect monetary damages.

Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) leaders and members say now that the divisive lawsuit is finished, rural and urban residents can collaboratively work to keep nutrients on the land and out of water.

“The decision dismissing an expensive and needless lawsuit is welcomed news,” said ISA President Rolland Schnell of Newton. “It restores momentum behind projects that actually increase the scale and pace of adoption of conservation practices by all Iowans, including landowners and farmers.”

He noted several practices advanced by the ISA:

  • Cover crop use is anticipated to increase to 750,000 acres this year, a jump from about 500,000 in 2015 and 10,000 in 2010.
  • ISA tile water monitoring conducted last year documented a 29 percent nitrate concentration reduction in fields with cover crops.
  • ISA monitoring of bioreactors has shown a 20-50 percent reduction in nitrate concentration. The association is increasing the number of bioreactors deployed statewide as well as the installation of saturated buffers.

“Iowa soybean farmers remain steadfastly focused on advancing real solutions to better water,” Schnell said. “Watershed planning, an approach ISA is heavily invested in, is the catalyst for long-term improvement in water and nutrient management.”

ISA Treasurer Lindsay Greiner of Keota said Strand’s ruling is good for agriculture and Iowa. He will move full steam ahead with plans to conduct more trials to determine what cover crops and management practices work best on his farm to reduce nutrient runoff.

The hog and grain producer is slowly adding cover crops to the plethora of conservation practices already used on his operation like buffer strips along streams, grass waterways and terraces. With litigation no longer looming, Greiner believes other farmers and landowners will do more as well.

“Now is the perfect time to come together and approach our water quality issues in a coordinated effort rather than worrying about a lawsuit, lawyers and arguments about who’s doing what,” Greiner said. “Now we can focus on what’s important: improving water quality and soil health … an issue important to every person in Iowa.”

Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe stated the utility’s board will review its options.

"We are disappointed in the ruling and the court's unwillingness to recognize the profound water quality impacts that pollution from drainage districts has on Iowa waterways,” Stowe said in media reports.

The water works will consider options for continued water quality protections, he continued.

Doug Struyk, attorney for the Iowa Drainage District Association, said the ruling is certainly provides reason for optimism the suit is over. However, there’s still an opportunity for the water works to appeal.

In the meantime, he said farmers and drainage districts should continue being responsible stewards of the land when it comes to conservation, fertility and drainage.

“Iowa farmers, as a whole, know what they need to do to protect their soils and the environment,” Struyk said. “They make these decisions every day. They need to stay focused on responsible practices to be both profitable and protective of the environment.”

Whether the lawsuit was ongoing or not, ISA member A.J. Blair of Dayton said it doesn’t affect the way he farms. The young livestock and grain producer will continue to plant cover crops, use no-till and other conservation practices.

“We have a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy in the state that most farmers are working hard to comply with,” Blair said. “There’s a lot of progress going on.”

ISA Communications Director Aaron Putze, APR, contributed to the story.

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Dorothy Tate, dtate@iasoybeans.com.

©2017 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.
Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.

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