The Iowa Soybean Association’s board of directors announced July 13 that ISA will give $150,000 to three rural Iowa counties to help fight a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The soybean association has already recently given $65,000 to Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties for legal defense. ISA gave that money to the three counties in May. The money comes from ISA membership funds. These are non-checkoff dollars, says ISA president Wayne Fredericks, a northeast Iowa farmer.
A year ago Des Moines Water Works field a lawsuit, claiming underground tile drainage lines in fields act as conduits to funnel high levels of nitrate into the Raccoon River, one of two sources of drinking water for about 500,000 residents in the Des Moines Metro area. The utility says it’s been forced to spend $1.5 million to clean the water to meet federal drinking water standards. The lawsuit seeks federal regulation of drainage tiles, and indirectly farmers.
ISA board feels the need to show strong support for the counties
The ISA board says it’s contributing more money because the lawsuit could harm farmers across the state and nation. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in June 2017 and is becoming increasingly costly. The Des Moines Water Works board has agreed to provide $1.35 million to cover its legal expenses. The board initially estimated spending $700,000 for the suit, but provided another $650,000 in May.
ISA president Fredericks of Osage says the historic lawsuit, if successful, would not only impact farmers in the three counties but across the state. “It’s a case Iowa farmers can’t lose,” Fredericks says. “As the lawsuit has progressed, it become more clear to Iowa soybean farmers the need to show strong support for the counties. We don’t want to look back and say we could have done more.”
The lawsuit, filed in March of 2015 in U.S. District Court in Sioux City, is scheduled to go to trial next June. A motion for summary judgement was filed this spring by attorneys for the counties in an attempt to get the case dismissed. They contend the drainage districts have no authority to regulate nutrient runoff and the utility has no direct proof the districts are solely responsible for high nitrate levels.
Stepping up will hopefully bring a quicker end to the lawsuit
ISA CEO Kirk Leeds calls the lawsuit an “unfortunate distraction” from the cooperative, proactive approach the association and farmers believe is the best way to improve water quality. By helping the counties, Leeds believes that will bring a quicker end to the lawsuit. Then rural and urban neighbors will be able to work together to find solutions for a difficult and complex problem.
“For all of these reasons, ISA has once again stepped up to defend Iowa agriculture and farmers,” Leeds says. “At the end of the day, it’s who we are — an organization of family farmers who rally around neighbors in need as Iowans often do.” The ISA provided $65,000 earlier this spring to pay legal expenses for the counties, bringing the association’s total commitment to $215,000. None of the soybean association’s contributions have come from checkoff dollars, says Leeds.
The federal Clean Water Act grants regulatory exemptions to nonpoint sources of pollution, such as field drainage systems. The Water Works is disputing that, saying tile lines and drainage ditches are point sources that should be permitted and regulated.
If the Water Works gets their way, it could dramatically change how Iowans farm and will likely have no positive impact on water quality, Leeds says.
No reason to believe heavy regulation will improve water quality
“It’s clear a blanket regulatory approach does not reflect the realities of the complexities of Iowa’s soil, weather and climate,” Leeds adds. “Plus, this could put Iowa farmers at a terrible competitive disadvantage if other farmers don’t have the same rules. If we have to stop tiling or change how Iowa soils have been drained for the past 100-plus years, it will make Iowa land less productive and much less valuable. The bottom line is we have no reason to believe a heavy handed one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme will improve water quality.”
Soybean association leaders say ISA will continue to pursue voluntary conservation practices that can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from farmland.
Dean Stock, chairperson of the Sac County Board of Supervisors, expressed his appreciation for ISA’s support. He says the counties haven’t spent a lot of taxpayer money yet on legal expenses, which is needed for public services and infrastructure needs, thanks to friends in agriculture.
Farmers in these counties are thankful for ISA’s assistance
“On behalf of our local drainage districts and the farmers in those districts, I want to express our deepest appreciation to the Iowa Soybean Association and all its members for standing with us as we defend our local economy, and farmers across the nation, from an attack on our ability to make our land productive,” Stock says. “We are proud of the efforts farmers make to responsibly and reliably feed the world while minimizing the impact on those around us.
“It means more than the ISA can possibly imagine to have them publicly stand shoulder to shoulder with us as we defend our ability to farm and to drive our local economies,” he adds. Stock, of Lake View, farms in Sac and Calhoun counties with his family. He says over the years his family’s farming operation has changed to boost productivity and help the environment. Conservation tillage (no-till soybeans and strip-till corn) was adopted along with variable rate and split applications of fertilizer. This curbs soil erosion and nutrient loss. The Stocks are currently experimenting with cover crops. “In general, most farmers are doing everything they can to minimize the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous leaving farms,” says Stock.