Water Warning

Posted in: Farming     

Texas is flooding while California endures its fourth year of significant drought. Mother Nature isn’t shouldering all the blame, though; agriculture is increasingly under fire. Nitrate levels in some Iowa streams are up to five times higher than the safe standard for drinking water. What’s clear is that water regulation is coming and farmers will have to implement greater conservation measures. What remains murky is how growers struggling to keep their own heads above water will afford to adapt.


Water quality is a big topic of conversation in Iowa — not just among farmers, environmentalists and local waterworks officials, but increasingly as the focus of urgent media headlines and, imminently, in courtrooms across the state.

Farming has become the flashpoint of a legal firestorm brewing in this state that will have repercussions across the country for not just farmers, but also the ag tech sector as a whole, called to come up with the technology and innovation that will help growers step up to the challenge of improved water conservation, without drowning in debt.

Regardless of growers’ efforts to reduce the level of nitrates flowing into waterways, public concern over the hypoxia crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has reached an alarming high. Hypoxia in aquatic systems refers to waters where the dissolved oxygen concentration is below 2 mg per liter. Most organisms avoid, or become physiologically stressed, in waters with oxygen below this concentration, which is why it is known as a ‘dead zone’.

“We’re really at that edge right now of is this going to be regulated or not,” says Dr. John Lawrence, Associate Dean at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, which evaluates the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices. “We have a window of opportunity to show that we can achieve society’s goals without regulation, but if we are not able to make progress towards these goals, it will be the next step. I don’t want to use the word ‘threat’ but it is.”

This warning comes in the form of high-profile court cases expected to be argued next June, as the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties pushes for strict regulations that would regulate farms much the same as factories or city sewer systems.

Experts say the Des Moines lawsuit will set a powerful precedent for how water management legislation is rolled out across the U.S. Iowa’s water problems aren’t the only water issue raising red flags. NASA satellite images have revealed a massive bloom of algae, which researchers say was aided by unseasonably warm temperatures and winter fertilizer runoff from farm fields. It’s just the latest in a rash of water issues plaguing the U.S. ag industry.

Back in Des Moines, the Water Works lawsuit claims that the city’s drinking water is so high in nitrate levels that the city can’t ‘blend it off’.

“They are required to deliver water in the tap that meets the EPA drinking standard, so they are going a step further saying that agriculture should be regulated in the same way as a city or factory,” he explains. “Currently farmland is not.”

According to Lawrence, the issue is one of private good versus public good. “The individual farmer can do the best they can to manage water on their property, and yet still have nitrates and phosphorous leaving their land that has no impact on them — but downstream, it does.”

The Gulf of Mexico is some 1,500 miles away from growers in Iowa, but it is in peril. Time Magazine provided a good explanation of its 6,400-mile hypoxia problem in its March 2016 issue: “Just as fertilizer speeds the growth of plants on land, the chemicals enhance the rapid development of algae in the water. When the algae die and decompose, the process sucks all the oxygen out of the surrounding waters, leading to a hypoxic event — better known as a “dead zone.” The water becomes as barren as the surface of the moon.”

This dire equation is not landing well with Iowa farmers. “They are making decisions on their farm, yet 1,500 miles away there’s a dead zone in the Gulf,” says Lawrence. It’s a reach, However, he says that the lawsuit is having an immediate impact on growers, even though it won’t come to the courts for a year. “The court case is making this much more immediate,” he says. “It’s not 1,500 miles away anymore, they are now thinking, ‘It’s a lawsuit that may impact the value of my land.”

Growers have been feeling beat up about this issue for some time, says Lawrence. “If you look at the media coverage and daily TV negative press about agriculture, how they’re polluting the water and have to be regulated, there’s this constant barrage that they are villains.”

Lawrence is pushing a nutrient reduction strategy (see more at nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu) he says has been well received, but notes, “Can we get it to the scale and speed that is necessary for society? I don’t know.”

Soils here are high in organic matter, which means that even if growers aren’t putting fertilizer on their two-inch tall corn, there may still be nitrogen leaving the field. “If you grow corn and soybeans and don’t have enough living roots taking up the nutrients at this time of year, you’re going to have loss,” explains Lawrence.

The goal of achieving a 45 percent reduction in the nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Gulf of Mexico is a “man-on-the-moon type challenge,” says Lawrence. “It’s not just a tweak here or there, we are running scenarios to see what it would mean. It’s not just an investment in precision agriculture or cutting back on fertilizer, it’s a substantial investment in permanent structures,” says Lawrence.

The question, he says, is: Who should pay?

Farmers say those who benefit should pay, so in the case of bioreactors or wetlands, where the benefits are downstream, the public should pay.

Local regulators and environmental groups say the polluter should pay, or ‘If you create it, you should pay for it.’

In the end, it seems the courts will decide.

Irrigation Technology Emerges

Neil Douglas has spent many years working to help farmers manage the water needed for growing healthy crops. As Market Manager for the Trimble® Irrigate-IQ™ precision irrigation solution, his goal is to boost farmers’ productivity and profitability, while enhancing environmental sustainability along the way.

In 2009, Douglas began having conversations with irrigation pivot resellers in New Zealand. “If you look at the history of irrigation here, it was about applying a large, consistent amount of water over the surface of the soil,” he explains. “There was no variation in how that water was applied.”

Douglas is one of the visionaries behind variable rate irrigation (VRI) on pivot irrigators, which allows growers to apply the right amount of water in the right place, thus bringing ‘precision management’ to the world of irrigation.

“Think of the land under the irrigator as a canvas where you want to paint colour. In the past, there was only one colour, but with variable rate irrigation you can essentially ‘paint’ different colors based on the desired application depth. It’s like turning a paint roller into a colour inkjet printer.”

Because of this, VRI technology can deliver optimum water and nutrients to the plant. “Water is nothing more than a carrier of nutrients to a root zone. If you have nutrients in the ground, then you only want the right amount of water to take the nutrients to the root zone,” says Douglas. “You don’t want too little and you don’t want too much, or it won’t be able to deliver what the plant needs.”

VRI technology gives farmers significantly more variability in their growing and more flexibility. Growers can utilize the system to apply different application depths across the entire field, or utilize no spray areas and divert the water to where it can be utilized the most effectively.

Douglas points to an example in Texas, where cotton growers are wasting water on sandy patches that never produce a crop. “We can redistribute that water,” he says. “We’ve got a solution that shuts off nozzles over the under-producing areas and uses that water in other areas of the field so that the crop can absorb it.”

To continue with the paint-roller analogy, Douglas can ‘paint’ specific amounts of water onto the land without wasting a drop. “Farmers are changing not because they are more environmentally conscious, but because of water restrictions — or, that they’ve realized they’re actually wasting nutrients and by stopping this they can save money.”

According to Douglas, 15 percent of North America’s farmers are already realizing these benefits. “Federal bodies in the U.S. are now looking at this and asking, ‘if we have to start to apply water restrictions, what is the impact on farmers? And what tools do farmers have to deal with these restrictions?’”

In the end, it comes down to using water more efficiently. Say a farmer puts down 24 inches of water in a season to grow his corn. If he has to reduce this to 15 inches, with no other adaptation it will not be possible. What’s required is to more effectively match the water to the soil type and crop that needs it, in order to produce a higher yield.

New Zealand currently has about 200 Irrigte-IQ systems, says Douglas, while the U.S. has only 100 at most. “The adoption rate in the U.S. is slow because farmers don’t believe they need to change yet,” says Douglas. “A few realize it, but those who are not yet affected or no legislative changes have come, aren’t choosing to do anything.”

Douglas predicts this will change. In the next 18 months to two years, when a lot people will be watching, he predicts an explosion of VRI. “People will start to scramble and realise how, now under water restrictions, they could be making higher yields,” he says.

His biggest fear is that growers will be drawn to low-cost providers only to be disappointed with the results, writing off the entire concept.

“In some regions farmers are jaded in their view because they’ve spent a lot of money and a system was difficult to use,” he says. “To me, that’s a significant problem. When we put this product on a farm we have to make sure they really know how to use it.”

Douglas says he looks forward to watching this trend unfold in the coming months. “In the next 12 months we will probably sell 80-120 systems into the U.S. ,” he says. “These will be on farms which might have 20 or more pivots. So, these farmers are going to see benefits in the yields. They are going to do another five pivots, or their entire farm, and it will be multiplied.”

Alongside this trend, Douglas concurs with Lawrence that regulations are just around the corner. “In 10 years’ time, I would be surprised if a pivot isn’t sold with this system already on it,” says Douglas.

The industry will be watching.

Water Management Tips for Growers

Roger Wolf is the director of environmental services with the Iowa Soybean Association, which represents 11,000 soybean growers.

Wolf’s goal is to improve environmental quality, keeping focus on the fact that growers need to be productive and efficient while while working toward this goal.

The association employs a ‘4M’ strategy, he explains: monitoring, measuring, mapping and managing. “The idea is to bring more data into this space, so farmers can have a good idea of how their practices are working and do they perform agronomically,” Wolf says.

  • Monitoring, measuring, mapping — The association conducts water monitoring at multiple points, including tributaries and tile-line monitoring. It is also conducting research on bioreactors, which is the practice of laying a bed of wood chips underground at the edge of a field. A tile line then runs through this for de-nitrification. There are currently 55 bioreactors in Iowa. A $10,000 investment can handle 80-100 acres of drainage, says Wolf. “Some of our initial work helped support the science in this space,” he explains. “We really try to deploy a suite of practices, helping farmers fine-tune nutrient management.” They use a full spectrum of precision management tools for monitoring, such as remote sensing, GPS units, replicated strip trials and yield monitors in order to evaluate new strategies.
  • Managing — The association promotes the use of cover crops among growers, given their effectiveness in improving the long term health of soil. “Having roots present when there isn’t an actual crop growing can really help water quality,” says Wolf. “It’s a bit of additional work on top of growing your annual crop, yes there’s an expense, but in the long term there’s certainly a benefit.” Other management techniques growers are employing include reduced tillage and zero till.

In the end, Wolf believes that as farmers continue to find success in these measures, the association’s goal must be to share these successes across the industry by showing measurable results and credible data.

He says Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy has a good chance of success under a voluntary system, as growers can have the flexibility to try different strategies and see what works.

“We’re trying to do the assessments, planning and scale-up in a voluntary way to achieve downstream outcomes,” he notes. “Having flexibility is important in a dynamic system.”

Wolf also asserts that the measures taken and lessons learned by Iowa soybean growers can be expanded to other regions, and other crops. “I am a proponent of using science and technology to really life ourselves to a higher level of performance in terms of caring for natural resources and improving environmental quality. This is the future.”

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