NCGA, State Affiliates Get the Job Done on Water Quality


Farmer leaders and staff from the National Corn Growers Association and its state affiliates met in Chicago last week to discuss water quality issues. During the two day conference, participants shared lessons learned from state policy efforts and reviewed NCGA’s 2015 national policy priorities on agricultural nutrients and water quality.


“NCGA’s goal is to ensure these policies are not dictated by Washington, D.C.,” said NCGA Chairman Martin Barbre. “Given the way EPA operates and how these issues are shaping up, the best defense corn growers have against overly aggressive national regulatory policies is a good offense at the state level.”

The conference facilitator, agricultural environmental consultant Tom Hebert, outlined the evolution of the national discussion on water quality.


“The public wants to believe something so critical to life is being well taken care of,” said Hebert. “Just saying something does not mean people understand you, because they are listening for different things. They don’t know the implications, and they need words backed up with credible actions they can see.”


NCGA Public Policy Director Ethan Mathews reviewed some of the top regulatory and legislative topics of concern for farmers regarding water quality:


  • A Florida anti-degradation lawsuit, if successful, will make it very difficult for states to issue future agricultural permits if the EPA finds any degradation.
  • A lawsuit filed by the Gulf Restoration Network in Louisiana attempts to force EPA to set numeric standards across the Mississippi River basin to reduce nutrient runoff leading to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. If successful, the EPA could be required to set specific numeric standards which would affect millions of farmers.
  • Harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie that entered Toledo’s water supply have resulted in legislation banning the spreading of manure on frozen ground. Because this legislation was crisis-driven, farmers are concerned about negative press tainting other agricultural issues.
  • The Des Moines Water Works Law filed notice of intent to sue three counties in Raccoon River Watershed. Their goal is to force drainage districts to obtain NPDES permits for drainage coming from tiled fields. 
  • Regarding the Waters of the U.S. Rule, agriculture has serious concerns about its clarity and the greatly expanded scope of the Act.


Panelists discussed current initiatives and what they felt was further needed. In Iowa, farmers have joined with agricultural associations, agribusinesses, municipalities, government agencies and other committed partners on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to increase awareness and the adoption of conservation practices to improve the quality of Iowa’s surface waters. Although early in its implementation, the program has seen collaborative efforts taken by Cedar Rapids, Ames and Storm Lake to implement science-based conservation initiatives for reducing nitrate and phosphorous loads in the Northern Raccoon River, Des Moines River and Northern South Skunk watersheds.


“We will get further taking a collaborative approach as opposed to an antagonistic, confrontational approach that’s about litigation and regulation that won’t actually improve water quality, said Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.


Jack Irvin, director of government and industry affairs for Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, echoed the need for better collaboration and communication.


“What science do you now have in place?” Irvin asked. “We often find out there was little hard science when these regulations were set up 20 or 30 years ago, yet it continues to just be standardly accepted as gospel.”


In Maryland, farmers developed a voluntary nutrient management certification plan. NCGA President Chip Bowling said they are now continuing to work on issues by involving the environmental community in the process.


One wish that Warren Formo, executive director at Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center has is to get faster with our messaging and maintaining a better public presence. “We’re becoming proactive and positive, but I wish we’d done that five years ago,” he said.


The conference also discussed specific challenges in implementing a strong Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy at the state level. State strategies by and large came out of Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. The EPA Science Advisory Council has set acceptable reduction levels for nitrogen and phosphorous to the Gulf at 45 percent. However, sources outside agriculture have called for mandates of 60 to 80 percent reductions.


Dean Lemke, the Agribusiness Association of Iowa’s nutrient management and environmental stewardship director, described the tracking of Iowa’s voluntary adopted practices that has an overall goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent. Participants include point sources, such as waste water treatment plants, and non-point sources like farms. Nine large watersheds were determined to be priorities by looking at factors such as nitrogen levels, phosphorous loads and locations of point sources. Governor Branstad and the Iowa Legislature provided $33.5 million in funding in 2013 and 2014 to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship for water quality and conservation programs related to the strategy. Farmers signed up for $2.8 million in cost share for cover crops, no till, strip till and nitrification inhibitors. Watershed demonstration projects implement practices on a smaller scale making results easier to see results.


“To make NLRS work in Iowa, three things have to happen, make continual progress in reducing levels, measure progress and communicate agriculture’s success in the progress,” said Lemke.  “The cost of the program is significant, but it’s an active effort here to record that progress more meaningfully than we have been able to do in the past.”


To help identify solutions, projects such as the Water Environment Research Foundation’s Agriculture Water Best Management Practices Database, the Watershed Report Card Project, and the Soil Health Partnership will provide farmers and state organizations key data ahead of regulations. Agriculture will be able to initiate discussions across state lines to pool knowledge and arm themselves with the science based facts needed in negotiations with EPA and environmental groups.


State staff from Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana joined NCGA President Bowling to discuss tools for attaining nutrient loss reduction and share what states are currently doing in this area. The panel overwhelmingly agreed that farmers will implement practices that are most effective on their land if they understand all the components to support bottom-line and long-term sustainability of their operations. They need more information to take advantage of biotechnology and tillage practices and fully utilize the capabilities that are built in with their equipment.


Of particular interest to participants was a need to better understand what practices can be engineered for big loss events. Strong leadership within the farming community that can demonstrate continuous improvements, document their progress and can communicate that farmers not regulators are the best ones to address the challenges of their land and resources if given the opportunity.


Working with land-grant universities is a crucial component for providing the needed research in this area, and universities have research on both sides of environmental issues. However, land-grant schools are all starved for resources, and it is a big challenge to get research information into a useable form for growers, many at the meeting noted. State corn checkoff funds can help shore up gaps in applied research that can lead to practical outcomes in the field. Participants agreed that researchers value partnerships and need additional opportunities to share what they are doing.


So what is next for NCGA’s work in water quality and nutrient management? Participants unanimously agree that greater communication efforts need to be implemented – and to start now. State and national corn association communicators will be part of the future process, so that communication tools can be developed and additional opportunities to bring NCGA messages to the public on these issues can be identified. NCGA and its Production and Stewardship Action Team will be involved in every meeting. Farmers who lead local and state efforts in water quality and nutrient reduction will be enlisted to open their farms for legislators and agency personnel to visit. NCGA will also reach out to other organizations to work more closely on education, awareness and the development of implementable solutions at the farm level.