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An advocate of voluntary programs to curb nutrient runoff from farms is President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Agriculture Department’s work on domestic farming and conservation.
His supporters say that, if confirmed, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (R) would be instrumental in negotiations on conservation issues in the next farm bill, which Congress is expected to debate next year. Regulation-wary agricultural interests have also praised Northey’s approach of offering financial incentives for farmers to take up environmentally friendly practices—such as planting cover crops in fields and vegetation buffers around streams.
“Bill will be a tremendous voice, an articulate voice in agriculture,” Gary Baise, an agriculture and environmental attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC in Washington told Bloomberg BNA.
Agriculture is “part of the problem” of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in water bodies, Baise said. “Bill can help us cure that problem.”
Through his spokesman, Northey declined to comment on how he would approach water quality efforts as undersecretary.
Northey’s nomination to serve as undersecretary of farm production and conservation was announced late Sept. 1. He was first elected Iowa’s secretary of agriculture in 2006.
A fourth-generation farmer with rumored aspirations for higher office—Iowa insiders have floated his name for Senate and gubernatorial races—Northey is best known for his push for financial incentives for farmers to prevent fertilizers from washing off their fields and into rivers that lead to the Gulf of Mexico.
The popularity of cover crops, plants that help keep nutrients in the soil and out of waterways, has grown quickly under Northey. More than 317,000 acres of the crops were planted via government assistance programs in 2015, a nearly ninefold increase since 2011.
“I think that’s a big feather in Secretary Northey’s cap,” John Weber, a corn, soybean, and hog farmer from Tama County, Iowa, told Bloomberg BNA. “You couldn’t find a bigger supporter and promoter” of voluntary programs to cut nutrients.
Environmental advocates, however, have said such programs yield few benefits to water quality.
Since 2014, the state has poured $46.6 million into the department’s Iowa Water Quality Initiative, part of a larger effort subsidized by federal and nonprofit funds to reduce by 45 percent nitrogen and phosphorus runoff to waterways.
Nitrogen and phosphorus promote the growth of algae, which robs water of dissolved oxygen and creates large “dead zones” where aquatic life cannot survive. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year covered a record 8,776 square miles—an area the size of New Jersey. Nitrogen compounds in drinking water also can lead to a potentially fatal condition in infants.
Progress on reducing nutrient runoff is still far away, according to a 2016 report. Sources of nitrogen from agriculture and stormwater runoff must be cut by 125,870 tons to meet Iowa’s 45 percent goal. Phosphorus must be reduced by 4,872 tons. Unlike industrial plants or wastewater treatment plants, agriculture is exempt from permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Des Moines Water Works Chief Executive Officer Bill Stowe, head of the Des Moines, Iowa, public water utility, slammed Northey for overseeing a strategy that led to the largest-ever Gulf of Mexico dead zone, with Iowa contributing 40 percent of the nitrogen, he said.
“Sustainable agriculture and consumer protection will take a huge step backwards as Bill Northey promotes the status quo and industrial agriculture,” Stowe told Bloomberg BNA in an email.
The board of trustees for Des Moines Water Works sued the board of supervisors in 10 agricultural drainage districts in 2015, alleging that the nitrogen pollution cost the utility more than $1.5 million. Northey criticized it as a legal attempt to regulate agricultural practices.
Northey called the lawsuit, which was unsuccessful in state court, “a needless distraction from our collaborative, research-based approach.”
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