Thursday, August 27, 2015

Des Moines Water Works CEO compares corn to tobacco as part of his farm runoff argument

Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, which in March filed a lawsuit against northwestern Iowa counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards that apply to factories and commercial users, has gone so far as to compare corn to tobacco as part of his battle against the agricultural industry, reports Agri-Pulse. "Stowe says he’s determined to see the government start regulating underground runoff from Iowa farm fields, even if that means a serious cut to a multibillion dollar industry."

Stowe favors "forcing farmers to cut back on corn production to reduce the amount of nitrates that get into the state’s rivers," reports Agri-Pulse. He told Agri-Pulse, “We’ve heard the same arguments about coal and tobacco. At some point there is a public health consequence to running a model into the ground. The current model is being run into the ground at the detriment of our consumers. Public health consequences from continued nitrate pollution in our rivers is creating a public health consequence here similar to coal, similar to tobacco.”

Agri-Pulse reports, "Comparing corn to tobacco is an exaggeration, to say the least. Des Moines Water Works is required by the EPA to keep nitrates and other pollutants below safety limits, and in fact, it puts the nitrates back into the river after they are removed from the drinking water supply. It’s the expense of denitrifying the water that the utility cited in deciding to sue three upstream counties in Iowa."

"The lawsuit, which could have implications far beyond Iowa but could take years to resolve, aims to force the federal government to start regulating tile drains as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act," reports Agri-Pulse. "The Environment Protection Agency considers the agricultural runoff from tile drains as an exempt, non-point source. Several other states, including Illinois and Indiana, also have extensive tile drainage."

"By mid-August, the utility’s denitrification plant had already been in operation for a record 148 days this year," reports Agri-Pulse. "Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction plan, which is designed to cut the amount of nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, calls for reducing the nitrates in Iowa rivers by more than 40 percent. But Stowe scoffs at the idea that it will be successful in reducing nitrate loads sufficiently."

"Reaching the state’s nitrate-reduction goal would take enormous changes in cropping practices and even how much corn the state can produce, according to Iowa State University agronomists," reports Agri-Pulse. "Under one scenario, farmers would have to plant cover crops on 25 percent of the corn and soybean acreage and convert a fourth of the state’s cropland to extended, four- to five-year rotations. At least two of those years the land would have to be turned over to alfalfa rather than corn or soybeans. And even the cover crops—which can be difficult to establish in more northern counties—along with rotations wouldn’t be enough. Farmers would still have to reduce their nitrogen usage and also install wetlands and drainage projects to capture some of the nitrates before they reach the streams and rivers."

"One option for the state is to simply pay for Des Moines Water Works to replace its outdated denitrification system," reports Agri-Pulse. "That would cost $100 million or more, but that’s a fraction of the value of Iowa’s corn crop, which was worth about $9 billion last year even after a drop in market price. In any event, the case isn’t likely to be decided for years. The lawsuit doesn’t even go to trial until August 2016." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

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