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As the Journal suggests in its Feb. 1 editorial, the threat of a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works over water pollution from agriculture has suddenly moved a longstanding issue into the spotlight.

While the Journal is confident that the gentle approach combining “communication, cooperation, creativity and commitment” is preferable to court action, Iowans have to ask how much longer we should wait for clean water.

A stronger nudge clearly is needed if we don’t want to see a parade of cities following the Des Moines move to court against upstream polluters. A threat to a city’s lifeblood of its water supply will not be taken lightly anywhere in Iowa.

There are many good and responsible farmers operating in this state, but not all will forgo a bit more yield to help keep pollutants out of Iowa streams. The yearly Iowa farm and rural life poll from Iowa State University asked about farmer spending on conservation in 2011. Asked how much they had spent on conservation practices over the last 10 years, 51 percent of participants reported they had spent nothing.

Agricultural interests hailed the new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half. But the strategy only requires voluntary action on the part of producers. The Soil Conservation Service, precursor to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been providing services and some funding to help farmers save soil and in the process improve water quality since the 1930s. How long should Iowans be expected to wait for good water quality coming from voluntary compliance with conservation practices?

One alternative to keep a meaningful voluntary component while assuring action is the “Choose 2” concept proposed in a July report from the Iowa Policy Project, “A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution.” The IPP report offered six ideas to make a voluntary system better.

The list is not exhaustive, but the proposals are serious. The “Choose 2” concept is part of the list, and it is simple: Mandate that every producer, farm owner or renter, adopt two runoff-reducing steps — but let the farmer choose which steps.

For the many farmers already taking meaningful steps to reduce nutrient runoff, there is no impact.

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Those who are not currently taking any steps would get to choose from among meaningful approaches that have been promoted by the Iowa Soybean Association, such as cover crops, grassed waterways, contour farming, terraces, bioreactors and conservation uses for oxbows. One could add stream buffers to that list. Producers could take two actions that best fit their operation, land and economic situation.

The “Choose 2” proposal is simple but effective, and keeps a voluntary component to a solution. It fits the approach of communication, cooperation, creativity and commitment sought by the Journal.

David Osterberg is co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 2001 to produce research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. IPP focuses on tax and budget issues, economic opportunity and family prosperity, and energy and environmental policy. Osterberg also is a former state legislator who chaired the House Agriculture Committee and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa.

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