News Feature | May 26, 2016

Farm States Pour Money To Fight Runoff, But It May Not Be Enough

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Officials in farming states are trying to tackle nitrate contamination through litigation and spending, but some experts say it will never be enough if farmers are not more heavily regulated.

As a farm state with major runoff challenges, Minnesota dedicates $100 million annually to water quality improvement.

Here’s what that looks like, per The Des Moines Register: “Buffers required on public waterways and ditches, comprehensive testing and monitoring, a watershed strategy designed to cut runoff from rural and urban areas, and established water quality goals.”

Those efforts make up what is “perhaps the Midwest's most comprehensive water quality program,” the report said. State spending “has footed intense monitoring and assessment of the state’s water quality.”

Nevertheless, Minnesota’s waters face major challenges. About 40 percent of the lakes and streams “are polluted, with much of that centered in southern Minnesota's farm country. In six far southwestern Minnesota counties, there are no lakes considered fishable and swimmable,” MPR News reported, citing a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report.

Another key farm state, Iowa is also pouring millions into water quality, as well. The state was selected “for a national $9.5 million USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program that's expected to be matched with nearly $38 million in private and state funding” as well as “a nearly $97 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to cut flood risks, a move that also reduces nutrient and soil losses,” the Register reported.

One Iowa utility is also taking a litigation approach to water quality. Des Moines Water Works' is suing three north Iowa counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

“The utility wants upstream drainage districts and, indirectly, farmers, to fall under federal oversight like cities, manufacturers and businesses,” The Register reported.

The utility announced this month that the trial will be delayed until next year. Graham Gillette, chairman of Des Moines Water Works board, weighed in per The Register.

“The rescheduled trial gives Iowans time to carefully consider the need for leadership interested in environmental and public health concerns, while holding agricultural producers responsible,” he said.

In spite of state efforts, environmentalists say farming practices will have to change substantially to really defeat the pollution problem.

"We've made little progress on nitrates, if any, over the years," said Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center of Environmental Advocacy. "The reason is primarily that we haven’t changed the farm practices enough to address the problem."

To read more about nitrate runoff problems visit Water Online’s Nutrient Removal Solutions Center.