Farmers and ag retailers across Iowa and many other states are keeping an eye on the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three local counties. The lawsuit is a result of what DMWW claims are excessive nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, which provides 500,000 Des Moines residents with water. 

“The safe drinking water act says more than 10 mg of nitrates per liter is a human health risk and rivers are at 14,” says Bill Stowe, CEO of DMWW. “Our denitrification system was built on assumptions of lower nitrates. If we keep seeing levels this high we’ll have to invest $80 million in new denitrification technologies.” 

DMWW claims higher nitrates are a result of nutrient runoff from naked fields, tile lines and other nutrient mismanagement from row-crop farmers.

“It feels like we got kicked in the gut,” says Brent Drey, corn and soybean farmer from Sac County, one of the Iowa counties involved in the suit. “The farmers who have changed feel like our work has been for nothing.”

Drey farms with his dad just north of Sac City, where they’ve implemented practices from Iowa’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy. For example, they’ve added more than 70 acres of buffer strips to help reduce nutrient runoff into ditches and streams. He says they’re not the only ones. 

“Folks who’ve never made a conservation effort put in cover crops and started using no-till or minimum till. I haven’t seen a moldboard plow since this lawsuit started,” he adds.

Farmers have found adding conservation practices might require additional effort, but they can be beneficial in the long run. For example, through the Farm Journal Test Plots, Ferrie has documented up to 39 bu.-per-acre yield gains with split N applications. Split application can help decrease the opportunity for N to leach and supplies N when the plant needs it most. 

Careful management of nutrients to reduce loss can help keep more nitrates out of the water to avoid making conservation practices mandatory and decrease fertilizer costs.

Many farmers fear regulations created by someone unfamiliar with farming. IAWA was formed in 2014 to outline best practices for farmers to voluntarily improve water quality.

“Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to improving water quality,” McMahon says. “But with the right combination of conservation practices, we have silver buckshot. We focus on providing proactive solutions to reduce N and P loss.” 

Iowa’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy suggests practices farmers can test drive to see what works best for their operation. Management adjustments include application rate, timing and method; land use encourages farmers to use cover crops, extended rotations, grazed pastures and land retirement; and edge-of-field practices involve drainage-water management, wetlands, bioreactors, buffers, terraces and sediment control.

Farmers who participate in voluntary programs and show their commitment to land stewardship hope their actions will show they can make changes without regulation. More than $1 million has been donated to help protect counties involved in the lawsuit which will go to trial August 8, 2016.