Tackling Nonpoint Source Nutrient Pollution

Recently, Ohio Governor John Kasich issued an executive order allowing the Ohio Department of Agriculture to set requirements for storing, handling and applying manure as well as nutrient management plans in an effort to reduce nutrient pollution and algal bloom growth in Lake Erie. The order is set to affect 7,000 farms across 2 million acres.

Although widely criticized by farmers now tasked with curbing runoff in the face of rising costs of production and nervously bracing for the effects of an international tariff war, Kasich’s decision is a sign of the political changes that watershed managers have been wanting for years.

Remember a few years ago when Bill Stowe, General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works, sued three upstream drainage districts representing more than 2,000 Iowa farmers, arguing that the perforated pipes underlying their fields constituted “point sources” of pollution and therefore should be regulated under the Clean Water Act?

Image credit:”Lake Erie HABs,”Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick © 2017

Stowe was frustrated having seen nitrate concentrations at his utility’s intakes exceed the federal drinking-water standard on at least 1,635 days over the past decade. In 2015, Des Moines Water Works spent $1.5 million to strip nitrates from the water and was facing a $15M bill to revamp its denitrification equipment.

He lost of course. His lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge in March 2017 on the grounds that drainage districts have immunity from lawsuits seeking monetary damages. But what he did achieve was to bring attention to the need to reduce non-point source nutrient pollution of local waterways by agriculture.

Nationwide, municipalities spend $4.8 billion a year to remove nitrates from public drinking water supplies in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) requirement to deliver tap water with no more than 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter. But farmers without regulation have had little economic incentive to invest in reducing runoff.

The methods to do so are already in place. In 2014, Iowa released its Nutrient Reduction Strategy which lists a variety of methods from planting cover crops to applying fertilizer more sparingly in the attempt to reduce nitrate runoff by 41 percent. And the more conservation-minded farmers are experimenting with denitrifying bioreactors or saturated buffers, using prairie plants’ deep root systems to consume up to half the nitrates in runoff. But it’s likely going to take more than the methods in place to get farmers to engage. The political will to protect the nation’s waterways must be brought to bear also.