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Iowa Water Lawsuit Calls Some Farming Practices Into Question
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Iowa Water Lawsuit Calls Some Farming Practices Into Question

Environment

Iowa Water Lawsuit Calls Some Farming Practices Into Question

Iowa Water Lawsuit Calls Some Farming Practices Into Question
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The state's largest water utility is suing county boards for polluting rivers the city uses for drinking water. At the heart of the fight is whether or not farmers should be forced to comply with federal water quality standards.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Farmers in the Midwest are also thinking about water, specifically the use of tiles - underground tubes that help farmers manage water for their crops. Iowa's largest water utility is suing three counties in the state, contending the tiles send farm water downstream, polluting a source of drinking water. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has that story.

CLAY MASTERS: Right now, there's no regulation requiring that Iowa farmers address the water leaving their fields through underground tiles. But that doesn't mean some aren't trying to address it. On a chilly early spring morning, Nathan Anderson is walking across one of his fields of brown corn stubble and stops to uncover something you might not expect to see this early in the year.

NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah, so you see some of these nice little green tips starting to get going again.

MASTERS: That tip of a green plant is rye, a crop Anderson sowed last fall. By having plants growing year-round, Anderson is able to keep more of the fertilizer from leaving his fields through underground drainage tiles. These are called cover crops, and they're one of the many tools farmers have in their toolbox to retain water. Anderson says while it's costly, it makes sense in the long run.

ANDERSON: It's hard to put dollars on soil health. It's a very tough thing to do. There's a number of scientists trying, but it's still very hard to do. And so we look at cover crops as a long-term benefit to our operation. We're not talking about a return that we're going to get this year.

MASTERS: The Des Moines Waterworks has sued three county boards of supervisors that have responsibility for the drainage districts these tiles lead to for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. They want these drainage districts to be held to the same regulation as them, which would force farmers to keep nitrates out of the river. High levels of nitrates, largely from farm fertilizer, has forced the utility to run a costly denitrification system. Bill Stowe is the utility's CEO.

BILL STOWE: Well, certainly environmental protection is expensive, but the proposition underlying it is that the environment is worth protecting. Without protection, what's happening in the current system is the costs of production are being pushed from the producers down here to our consumers.

MASTERS: Stowe says if the high nitrate levels persist, the utility will need to replace its aging denitrification system with one that costs $150 million. While there's no law requiring farmers to change their land management practices, the state and Iowa State University are encouraging them to plant cover crops, buffer strips or construct wetlands among possible solutions. And now the race is on between farmers deciding if they can embrace those solutions before the court forces them to. Iowa state agriculture economist Chad Hart says farmers across the country are closely watching.

CHAD HART: While this is not the first lawsuit of this type, it's the first one really here in the upper Midwest in the main crop production region. When you look at a case like this, probably the precursor to this was what we see now with the Chesapeake Bay area and some of the work that's been done out there where there was some voluntary efforts and some regulatory efforts through the courts to manage water quality. So now we're seeing that, if you will, second wave of both those approaches being taken here in Iowa.

MASTERS: Hart says less than 5 percent of the 24 million row crop acres in Iowa are in some type of water quality conservation. What happens here in Iowa could show other urban communities with water quality problems how far they can go in trying to get rural farm country to foot the bill for clean water. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

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