Resource management, especially water, is becoming increasingly important to farmers and the American public because of concerns such as the severe drought in the western part of the U.S. and runoff of farm fertilizers and pesticides, among many matters involving water.

How the public perceives farmers’ management of resources is important for agriculture.  This, the second of three columns about “what Americans think about farming is a big deal,” focuses mainly on concerns about water-borne soil nutrients that enter public waterways.

In March this year, the Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against three counties in Northwest Iowa, claiming the governments of these counties should be held accountable for allowing high amounts of nitrates to enter the Raccoon River, a major water source for the city of Des Moines.  The highly publicized suit has become a bellwether for who is responsible for managing water nitrates that is expected to take years for the legal system to sort out. 

The three defendant counties are highly agricultural.  The plaintiff alleges the three county governments should do more to curb excessive concentrations of nitrogen from flowing through drainage tubes and ditches into feeder streams of the Raccoon River.

Is the problem real?  Excess nitrogen in water or food reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, thereby contributing to abnormalities and even death in human fetuses, infants and infrequently, adults. 

This condition, called hypoxia, can affect many animals similarly.  Large amounts of nutrients can contribute to other negative consequences, such as encouraging the proliferation of plants that clog waterways.  

The Mississippi River, which drains much of America’s agricultural heartland, and many other rivers worldwide, transport high levels of nitrogen and other soil nutrients like phosphorus from fertilizer and decaying vegetation in their flowage.  The nutrient-laced water feeds algae and plants that multiply to such an extent they use up the oxygen around their ocean terminuses, causing shrimp, fish and other oxygen-dependent species to die if they can’t flee the area.  

An annual dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi River has been gradually enlarging over the past fifty years as the use of agricultural fertilizers has increased.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the dead zone in 2014 was about as large as the area of Connecticut.  Gulf Coast fishers, crab and shrimp catchers especially incur economic losses.

Although county governments are the defendants in the Iowa litigation, farmers and drainage districts are blamed mostly for alleged high levels of agricultural fertilizer and manure nitrates bypassing natural absorption methods, such as natural percolation of water through the soil before reaching a stream. 

About 92 percent of nitrates and 80 percent of phosphorus entering Iowa streams trace their origin to farms, according to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center in its Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy document.

Leaching of farm-applied anhydrous ammonia, other types of crop fertilizer and manure nutrients into tile lines can occur when the soil is saturated with moisture from heavy rains and when much water from manure lagoons is dispersed onto absorption fields.  Direct runoff from melting snows when the ground is still mostly frozen and during floods is a major factor too. 

The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed rules to regulate surface water runoff through usually dry drainage ditches and to monitor entry points of nutrient-rich water into waterways. The proposal, called the “Waters of the United States (WOTUS),” has generated controversy. 

Several farm organizations assert WOTUS over-reaches and ask that WOTUS be withdrawn.  Most farmers are good stewards, they say, and aren’t responsible for as much of the problem as the EPA claims.  Moreover, farmers can’t control the weather. 

However, the amount of U.S. farmland overall in USDA conservation programs, which includes filter strips, declined for the past five years, according to USDA data and these acres were mostly converted into growing crops.  The 2014 Farm Bill reduces conservation enrollment acres from 32 to 24 million acres by FY2018.

Farmers’ control of their land is at stake.  Land owners and operators have to demonstrate they are taking the necessary measures to earn the image of being good resource stewards or the general public, along with consumer and environmental groups, may demand that governments set the rules for water and land management.   

“Farmers have not done a good job telling their own conservation story, and we’re losing the public perception battle because of it,” said the President of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Bruce Peterson, in Corn and Soybean Digest.  Peterson noted his association strongly supports the use of filter strips, along with many other best management practices that are tailored to the unique characteristics of each farm.  

Accurate information and a full range of opinions are needed to develop sensible rules for managing agricultural resources.  Farmers’ ideas and recommendations about WOTUS and farm conservation practices are needed by the public, elected and appointed officials, and by the print, radio, television and social media.


Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan, IA farm owner; he can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com