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Farmers, Governor announce water quality improvement cooperation

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DES MOINES — An alliance has been formed to help farmers adopt practices to reduce the level of nutrients flowing into Iowa waterways.

A voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce nitrate and phosphorous “loads” was approved last year. Three groups now have aligned to form the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, with a mission of “dramatically” accelerating the pace and scale of quantifiable water quality improvements.

Created and funded by the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the alliance is intended to increase farmer awareness, engagement and participation in the strategy, said Kirk Leeds, who leads the new alliance’s governing board of directors.

“A simplistic regulatory scheme will not improve water quality nor will another marketing campaign touting the importance of farming,” Leeds told a Statehouse news conference that included Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. “Serious matters demand a serious approach and farmers are committed to achieving results.”

Leads said the participating organizations are willing to leverage private partnerships and investments to ramp up support for a long-term strategy, which backers conceded likely will take hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to achieve.

“This is a significant event,” said Northey, who noted the nutrient reduction strategy is intended to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loads leaving Iowa by 45 percent. But he conceded it is difficult to measure those levels or attach target numbers to quantify whether the goal eventually is achieved.

“I don’t have an exact read of what that number is for total tonnage that leaves the rivers in Iowa because it varies,” Northey said. “It’s a real challenge to actually measure it.”

The alliance announced Monday that Sean McMahon, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s North America Agriculture Program, has agreed to serve as its executive director beginning Sept. 15.

McMahon, who also directed national land stewardship campaigns with the National Wildlife Federation, said he looks forward to the challenge of his “unique” assignment. But he noted the effort will take time and many partners and collaborators to achieve the reductions in nutrient loss at the scale that is needed.

Branstad said Iowa has “come a long ways” but still has work to do to improve its water quality. He said he was “very optimistic” about the potential the alliance brings to assisting in that effort, but he cautioned Iowans concerned about the quality of Iowa’s waterways to “be patient” because the current problems are not things that can be solved in one or two years.

State Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat challenging Branstad in the 2014 governor’s race, issued a statement Monday praising the alliance’s efforts, which is a shared goal in rural and urban areas of the state.

“My job as governor will be to work with all stakeholders toward that goal, not to demonize or attack one industry or sector,” said Hatch, who charged that the voluntary nutrient management strategy was undercut by Branstad’s veto of $11.2 million in June that was intended to fund the program.

In response to a reporter’s question at Monday’s news conference, Branstad said he was forced to cut money for programs that he liked in the fiscal 2015 budget due to an unexpected drop in tax collections that potentially could have jeopardized the state’s fiscal stability in fulfilling long-term commitments.

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