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Iowa ag leaders anxious about EPA’s Mississippi River basin plans

Posted 4/9/2011

From FB News
March 7, 2011

Iowa - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA's) plans for a strict water quality program in the Chesapeake Bay region don’t bode well for growers in Iowa and other parts of the Mississippi River basin, according to Iowa agriculture officials and Iowa Farm Bureau environmental specialists. If such a program was implemented in the Corn Belt, it would allow EPA to “micromanage” watersheds, farmby- farm, to determine specific nutrient allocations and force massive agronomic changes, regardless of cost or lost production, they said.

In addition, EPA’s plan could be a big problem for rural communities, requiring costly changes in municipal, business and wastewater utilities and curbing development
throughout the Midwest, IFB staff warned. There will be few winners when communities communities and farmers compete for a limited supply of EPA permit allocations they need to expand or to start new businesses.

This is a big worry in a state always looking for ways to boost economic activity in rural communities, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. “It’s really a scary thing when you look at it,” Northey said. “We all want clean water, but a science-based, voluntary program would be much more effective.” Rick Robinson, IFB environmental policy adviser, pointed out that Iowa farmers have accomplished a lot with voluntary, incentive-based efforts.

Iowa’s erosion rate was estimated at 5 tons per acre per year in 2003,
well below the 1987 high of 7.5 tons. Also, a recent University of Iowa study of rural well water in the state showed a decline in the number of wells with detections of nitrates and herbicides, including atrazine.

All that would be dismissed for heavy-handed federal control. The agency’s mandatory approach would also be at odds with USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative, Robinson continued.

Launched in late 1999, the plan is designed to reduce nutrient runoff by paying incentives to voluntarily install projects that prevent, control and trap nutrient runoff. Further cementing the state’s commitment to voluntary efforts, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Iowa State University recently announced a voluntary program to reduce nutrient loss.

Northey said an assessment of nutrient reduction technologies by ISU, the first step of that program, is expected to be finalized this year. Heightened concern about the federal government’s plans for the Mississippi River basin was prompted by recent revelations that EPA has signed an agreement with a contractor to develop a system of total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for the region as a way to reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The TMDL is expected later this year.

This is similar to the approach EPA took when setting up the Chesapeake Bay program, said Don Parrish, American Farm Bureau Federation water quality specialist. “It appears to be a process they want to use all over the country,” Parrish said.

AFBF has filed suit in federal court to halt the Chesapeake Bay program. Northey is worried that EPA regulation will create divisions and spur legal battles. “I don’t want us to be out there with dueling lawsuits and have courts deciding on policy and on what should be done on every farm,” Northey said. “That won’t be good for farmers, and I actually think it stops progress in cleaning up water.”