We can solve this

We were encouraged to report Friday that virtually everyone involved in a potential lawsuit over nitrate levels in the Raccoon River is interested in some sort of negotiated settlement. We were especially interested in hearing from Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton and Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe that they agree that we have an issue that needs to be sorted out short of a courtroom. If those two people could meet in a room for an hour or two we would bet there would be some sort of outline for a deal.

The DMWW board on Jan. 8 voted to issue a 60-day notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties for elevated nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, from which the utility draws drinking water for 500,000 customers. The lawsuit will ask the court to declare drainage districts (for which the counties are trustees) as point-source polluters. Point-source polluters, such as cities, must under government permit meet federal guidelines for effluent.

The lawsuit has brought national notice. All sorts of interests want a voice in it.

The fact is that the controversy is between the DMWW and three counties.

We do not, as citizens of BV County, want the Farm Bureau or the Iowa Drainage District Association or the Iowa Environmental Council or the Sierra Club representing our county’s position. We elected Dave Patton for that job. At this point, Patton is who we’re hoping can bring some pragmatic solutions to a huge problem that vexes rural and urban.

We know that nitrate levels in drainage tiles have increased with our conversion to the corn-soybean crop rotation. We know that Iowa only woke up to the problem two years ago and funded a water quality program as part of its voluntary nutrient reduction strategies. The program was funded at $10.4 million to cover 23 million acres of farm ground. What a pittance.

Any motorist can plainly see that we are not the soil and water stewards that the politicians would portray us to be. We are making some baby steps, but only 5,000 acres of BV County land were planted in winter cover crops. We know that cover crops help reduce nitrogen leaching during high water movement in spring and sometimes, as last year, in fall. We know that more grazing, buffer strips and new ethanol crops can help significantly.

We all know what we have to do. It’s just that we’re taking our sweet time about it.

Buena Vista County can make a promise to the Des Moines Water Works that, with full support from the state, we can meet federal guidelines for water quality, and we think we can do it in five years. The county would need some assurance from the state that, if the county failed to meet its goal, the state could cover damages incurred by DMWW for running its nitrate removal system. It would be far cheaper for the state to pay DMWW $1 million every time it has to run the nitrate machine than it would be to live under a permitted regulatory system. If it wished, the state could pass the costs back to drainage districts that created the problem.

No less than Jerry Hatfield, a world-renowned agronomist and director of the National Center for Agriculture and the Environment (formerly the National Soil Tilth Lab) at Iowa State University tells us that we did not have much of a nitrate problem in the Raccoon River before we changed cropping systems away from an integrated crop-livestock watershed.

We have been impressed that Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey agrees. During his visit to Storm Lake last Wednesday, Northey preached how urgent it is to take better care of our land and soil. The Spirit Lake Republican obviously is enthusiastic about the merger of modern agriculture and environmental stewardship. Patton could gain more insight on how the state can further contribute from Northey.

We believe that Patton understands the issue completely. He lives next door to the lake and cares about it. His best friends and clients — including this county — are deeply involved in this marvel of engineering we know as Iowa production agriculture. We think he is just the person to find common ground with Bill Stowe.

Think what you will about Stowe and his threatened lawsuit, but he is no dummy. And he has a legitimate complaint. We know how to control nutrients, so control them. We know how to keep soil in the field, so let’s get after it and quit farming the ditches. We know how to incorporate sustainable practices into modern high-tech farming if we can get past our own wisdom. Note that the average Iowan does not unanimously condemn DMWW’s position as Gov. Terry Branstad and Rep. Gary Worthan did with such ardor. State officials should not ignore as frivolous a novel legal theory put forward by Stowe, himself a lawyer and engineer.

This is Iowa, which has led modern agriculture since the rollout of the Waterloo Boy. We gave the world Aldo Leopold and Henry Wallace, too. We can figure this thing out without stepping into a courtroom. The first step is Stowe and Patton locking themselves in a room with no one else present.