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Iowa water official: Farm nitrates should be regulated

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Large rolls of drain tile sat in a field.
Large rolls of drain tile sat in a field, April 21, 2015. Drain tile can make fields more productive, but a lawsuit contends that water emerging from the underground system of pipes is high in nitrates.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The head of the largest drinking water system in Iowa told Minnesota water regulators and environmental advocates Friday that water pollution leaving farm fields should be regulated like any other pollution.

  Nitrate is a nutrient in soil, but it also is found in fertilizer widely used on corn and soybean fields in Iowa and Minnesota. Water moving off of those fields takes nitrates with it, causing a problem for public water supplies in the Midwest. It also is a major factor in the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where fish can't survive.

  "Our traditional technologies do not deal with nitrate pollution," Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said at the annual Mississippi River Forum. "They'll deal with bacteria, they'll deal with viruses, lot of things. But nitrates, a form of nitrogen, isn't dealt with without turning on a whole separate series of issues that create all sorts of problems for my rate payers and for us."

  Stowe said nitrates are a growing problem for public drinking water systems. He said Des Moines must pay for new technology that can remove nitrates, a system that will cost as much as $183 million.

Earlier this year, Des Moines Water Works sued three counties that oversee agricultural drainage from tile underneath farm fields. The practice, widespread in Iowa and Minnesota, can make fields more productive. But the lawsuit contends that water emerging from the underground system of pipes is high in nitrates.

  "These tile lines were from four to seven times the safe human level of consumption," Stowe said. "That is absolutely unacceptable from our view."

  To address the problem, he advocates a solution that makes farmers throughout the Midwest uncomfortable — regulating agricultural drainage systems just like factories and sewage treatment systems are regulated now.

  "I know of no business besides agriculture that can take a pipe from their business and run it directly to a water of state without any kind of regulation," Stowe said. "That now happens in your state and in mine, but particularly in mine, and that's a huge problem for us."

  The system of underground plumbing in farm country is extensive. But Stowe likens methods to control it with what already has been accomplished on tailpipe pollution.

  "The idea that there would be a point of treatment and point of control on every muffler was incomprehensible. 'Oh, they're all different; one size fits all, it'll never work. How will you regulate it?' Well guess what, we sure as hell found a very effective way of regulating it," he said. "And that kind of ingenuity, that kind of science can be used in drainage districts and of anyone who discharges into the waters of Minnesota or of Iowa."

  The Des Moines lawsuit is still making its way through federal court.

  Minnesota doesn't appear to have anything similar on the horizon. But a Minnesota Department of Health report released earlier this week shows nitrates are becoming a bigger problem for private wells and community drinking water systems in the state.

  Kris Sigford, water quality program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said Minnesota is trying a variety of things to address nitrates. They include new state guidelines on fertilizer use and a special certification program for farmers that address water quality problems. But if they don't work, Sigford said, Minnesota could see a lawsuit.

  "I think it's a possibility," she said. "It's not usually the first resort, but I think we have some possibilities to try in the future if we don't get a handle on it."

  Farm groups have been adding conservation measures voluntarily, said Thom Petersen, government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union.  

"Farmers, not a surprise, we prefer the voluntary approach to the regulated approach," Petersen said. "So I think it is important that we show improvements and that there are things that are going on that show improvements and that's why we're working on the buffer initiative with the governor."  

One of Gov. Mark Dayton's top priorities this legislative session is a requirement for buffers along all waterways to keep nutrients and other pollutants out.

  Farm groups, environmentalists and others have been meeting with lawmakers to come up with language all sides can support. But Stowe, of Des Moines Water Works, notes that that when water is moving underground, bringing nitrates into streams and rivers through pipes, buffers don't help much.  

That's why groups like Friends of the Mississippi River are also pushing other measures, some of which have a chance of passing this legislative session. They include more money for the University of Minnesota to develop cover and perennial crops that could soak up more of the nutrients that wreak havoc on water supplies. An incentive program for biofuels also could promote more cover crops on the landscape.

  The voluntary conservation measures that already have been implemented won't be enough, said Whitney Clark, executive director for Friends of the Mississippi River.  

"The measures that we're taking in Minnesota right now just aren't getting us there," he said.