WOTUS Roundtable Panelists: Regulate Ag

Iowa Dairy Farmer, Professor Tell EPA Voluntary Measures Not Fixing Nutrients Pollution

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The EPA on Monday hosted the first of 10 scheduled virtual roundtables focused on the ongoing waters of the U.S. rulemaking. (DTN file photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Two panelists from Iowa taking part in the EPA's first of 10 roundtable discussions on waters of the U.S. on Monday told the agency it was time to regulate agriculture to get a handle on nutrients pollution.

The EPA hosted the first of 10 scheduled virtual roundtables on the ongoing WOTUS rulemaking, starting with what the agency billed as a Midwest panel sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association.

Just one of the 13 panelists taking part in a Zoom call on Monday represented agriculture interests to any degree -- an organic dairy farmer calling for ag to be regulated -- while a second panelist was a University of Iowa environmental engineering professor focusing on the nutrients runoff problems Iowa farmers have caused.

The rest were representatives from the environmental community, urban housing officials from Kansas City, Missouri, community health officials from Michigan and sewer district officials from Ohio.

Francis Thicke, a Fairfield, Iowa, organic dairy farmer, said the federal government needs to regulate farmers -- particularly Iowa farmers -- to gain ground on nutrients reduction.

"Agriculture contributes a whole lot of pollution," Thicke said. "We're pretty much exempt, and we don't have the political will to do anything about it. Agriculture thinks they're exempt from regulation."

The National Parks Conservation Association was openly opposed to the Trump administration's Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which was struck down by a court.

When the Trump administration announced the final rewrite of the 2015 WOTUS rule in January 2020, the National Parks Conservation Association said in a news statement the action was "a devasting blow to our national parks and surrounding communities."

Since the Biden administration announced a two-step rulemaking process to replace the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, agriculture interests have come out strongly in favor of the Trump-era rule and against what will be a third rewrite in the past eight years.

Larry Weber, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering and Edwin B. Green chair in hydraulics, told EPA the Midwest has seen an increase in the intensity of rainfall and in frequency, and water quality continues to worsen.

"That feels like a very slow-moving train," Weber said, "one that's unstoppable and yet not getting the level of attention that it deserves."

The state of Iowa has deployed a real-time continuous water quality monitoring network with real-time nitrate sensors across the state. The network shows the level of nutrients leaving Iowa farms continues to increase.

"And what we're seeing in our data over the period of time that we are trying to reduce the nutrient load with the Gulf of Mexico," he said, "the nitrate load leaving the state of Iowa has now doubled. So, we're trying to reduce it by 45%, and yet during that period, it has now increased by 100%. And I would suspect that by 2035 of the goal period for the 45% reduction, we have a high likelihood of doubling the load leaving Iowa yet again."

Thicke, a one-time candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, said he worked for USDA in the 1980s when the National Water Quality Initiative was launched by USDA, EPA and other federal agencies, to take action to reduce nutrients runoff from farms and improve water quality.

"The key thing was it was going to be voluntary for agriculture," he said. "We thought in five years we can fix a problem voluntarily. That was 1988 and there's a five-year water quality program, and since then, I call it the water quality merry go round. Every five years, we get some new politician who says we're going to have a water-quality initiative, and that lasts as long as the politician, and it never goes anywhere. But unless we can have the political will to regulate agriculture, we're not going to get very far."

NITRATE LEVELS WORSEN

Weber said nitrate levels have worsened because of the industrialization and the intensification of agriculture.

Across the agricultural Midwest, he said, there is an expansion of agricultural livestock production as well as the "over-application of manure" from that livestock and the commercial fertilizer application.

"In our stat, we are currently farming about 25 million to 26 million real crop acres for which we overapply nitrogen fertilizer and manure base nitrogen by 100 pounds per acre -- about roughly 2.5 billion pounds," Weber said. "In two of the last four years, we've seen the export of nitrogen in our rivers, lakes and streams exceed 1 billion pounds."

With the Iowa watershed approach, Weber said, green infrastructure is being deployed throughout the state. But the building of wetlands doesn't keep up with all the tiling happening on Iowa farms.

"One watershed that we're working in, we're building $8.5 million worth of wetlands, and we're so proud of all the wetlands and for the water holding and water quality improvement that they have," Weber said.

"But in that exact same watershed over the same period of time, farmers have installed 8,400 miles of subsurface tile drainage. And I say that because with those wetlands that we've built, the impact of the tile drainage far exceeds the benefit of the green infrastructure that we're installing."

IOWA REDUCTION GOALS

Thicke said Iowa State University research shows 93% of nitrogen contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico comes from agriculture, and 79% of phosphorous comes from Iowa farms.

"We've had goals to reduce that since 2013," Thicke said. "We've had a nutrient reduction strategy. However, we've not made any progress that can be verified on that. A lot of talk but not much progress."

Thicke said Iowa corn and soybean fields are "inherently leaky" when it comes to crop nutrients.

"It's a flawed system for water quality, because corn and soybeans only have live roots in the soil for about five months of the year," he said.

"So, during most of the year, there are no live roots in the soil. So, when it rains, the nitrate is soluble -- it's taken right down to the tile drains, which is present everywhere. So, it's a flawed system and that's not well understood."

Thicke said farms should be required to have water quality plans.

"A farmer would have to have practices that would meet a level of tolerance for nitrogen and for phosphorus," he said.

"For example, we know that cover crops can reduce nitrate leaching by about 30%. So, a farmer would have to meet a tolerance value for nitrogen and phosphorus both, and if the computer says your practices are not going to make that goal, then they'd have to go back and change their practices until they can meet that value for phosphorus and nitrogen.

"Right now, we have a voluntary water quality program in Iowa, and it's just magical thinking. It's not happening. The farm organizations are talking up all the practices that are happening. But we're going backwards faster than we're going forward, and so we need to have some regulation."

The EPA has a nine more roundtables scheduled to run through the end of June, https://www.epa.gov/…, as the agency continues to work toward a rewrite of the WOTUS rule.

Read more on DTN:

"WOTUS Rule Proposal Still in Works," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

"50 Senators: EPA, Stop WOTUS Rulemaking," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

"EPA Proposes Pre-2015 WOTUS Definition," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley