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Responding To The EWG Linking Farming Practices To Potential Drinking Water Contamination

Posted on April 25, 2012 at 2:20 AM by Iowa Corn

This post is in response to the Environmental Working Group's recent report "Troubled Waters - Farm Pollution Threatens Drinking Water." The report was aimed at water resources in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It's no secret that these agricultural states have various water quality issues, however, the EWG report is filled with exaggerations and misinformation instead of workable solutions.

This past Sunday was Earth Day and next week is Soil and Water Conservation week in Iowa.  Protecting Iowa's soil and water resources is always at the top of mind for farmers, in fact according to the USDA farmers have decreased soil erosion by 44%.  While this reduction is a good start, there is always more that farmers can do to improve the soil and water on their farms.  

No-till corn and grassed backslope terraces
help control soil erosion and reduce flooding in the
East Boyer River near Denison. (Via)

There are many flaws in the EWG report.  First, the report makes no distinction between natural and man-made lakes in Iowa.  As we all know, there are few natural lakes in Iowa.  Most lakes in Iowa are built by putting a dam across a stream and creating an impoundment.  Many are built specifically for drinking water.  These artificial lakes are vulnerable to algal blooms because their watersheds are very large compared to a similar sized natural lake.  With larger watersheds comes the potential for more nutrients in runoff.  Also, there are many other factors involved in creating an algal bloom.  The report admits, “local physical, hydrological, and weather conditions determine whether an algal bloom will erupt in water with a particular nutrient concentration.”

The report exaggerates the threat of cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae but they are bacteria, not algae).  Few algal blooms produce cyanobacteria Also, not all cyanobacteria are poisonous.  The report goes on about how dangerous they are but says, “documented cases of harmful human health effects due to algal toxins are few in the United States.”

EWG’s solutions to these water quality problems involve the national Farm Bill.  In my opinion, if you want to improve local water supplies, you need local support for farmers who have intimate knowledge of the land in the watershed.  

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
(CREP) Wetland. (Via)

Since 1973, Iowa’s state cost share program has been providing financial and technical assistance to farmers to implement soil and water conservation practices.  Last October, almost $20 million in supplemental funding requests were received for state cost share with only $2.6 million available.   We need to provide more financial and technical assistance so farmers can implement new technologies that are being developed for nutrient reduction.

One of EWG’s solutions is to restore more buffers and wetlands.  Iowa farmers have voluntarily enrolled more acres in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program than any other state and are ranked fourth in voluntarily restoring wetlands via the Wetland Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.

Regardless of what the provisions of the next Farm Bill will be, the State of Iowa is working on a statewide nutrient reduction strategy.  This strategy will address both non-point and point sources of nitrogen and phosphorus.  Over 20 scientists from Iowa State are assisting IDALS and DNR to create a voluntary, science-based strategy to reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus from our waters by 45%.

While EWG is trying to scare people into thinking that their water is poisoned, Iowa’s farmers are quietly doing their job by continuously improving their stewardship of the land that is their livelihood.

Ben Gleason is the Sustainable Program Manager at Iowa Corn where he works on a range of environmental projects affecting Iowa corn growers.  Water quality issues are a priority, and Ben works closely with government agencies and other organizations to address these issues.  Previously, Ben worked for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship as a project coordinator for multiple watershed projects addressing sediment and nutrients in lakes and streams.  Ben grew up in Charles City, IA near his family’s farm on the Little Cedar River.  He resides in Ankeny and his hobbies include hunting, fishing, and boating.


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