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Iowa Utilities Look to Slow Soil Erosion, Improve Water Quality

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 Mark Moran, Producer-Editor

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Friday, November 4, 2022   

A cattle operation in Grinnell has been fined for stockpiling manure on its property that had been washing into a nearby creek. It's the latest in a series of pollution cases that date back generations - and vex the agencies trying to keep drinking water clean.

Ted Corrigan, chief executive and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, the city's water utility, said they're testing for nitrates, phosphates and now, dangerous algae blooms. But they're also joining with farmers who are introducing cover crops, which prevent erosion and provide nutrients to the 20-million acres of bare soil that remain after Iowa farmers harvest their crops.

"And a cover crop is a crop that you don't harvest," he said. "It stays there on the ground through the winter months. It provides living plants there, that are there to hold the soil in place. Their roots tend to hold the soil in place."

In some cases, Corrigan said, the crops are provided free of charge by ag partners in the state. While it might seem like a common-sense solution, he noted that some long-time farmers aren't willing to give it a try. In the case of the Grinnell cattle operator, manure was running into a tributary of Middle Buck Creek - and eventually, into the Des Moines water supply.

Many farms have been in the same family for generations, but Corrigan said there's an increasing trend toward "non-operator land owners," a fancy way of saying people who rent their land out rather than farm it themselves. He said he sees it as a troubling trend that could create stumbling blocks for conservation efforts.

"You can imagine that if somebody is renting this land, they're not going to spend a lot of money improving the land, because it's not their land - and they might not even have the opportunity to rent it next year or two years from now," he said. "And so, that's a real barrier to implementation of conservation practices, is non-operator land owners and their lack of connection to the land."

Corrigan said conservation groups and local natural-resource agencies are working hard to stay ahead of the latest yield enhancer or corporate farm production method. He likened it to a chess game between conservation and utility officials and large-scale ag producers.


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