Iowa farmers consider bioreactors to improve water quality

“If we all sit around and wait till somebody either pays us to do something or prods us with a stick, why, nothing happens and the problem will continue t...

MUSCATINE COUNTY, Iowa — Iowa lawmakers say improving the state's water quality will be near the top of the agenda as the legislature meets in Des Moines. Senate File 512 aims to make more money available and speed up the process for farmers to install water cleaning technology, such as bioreactors.

Bioreactors use wood chips to filter-out nitrates found in farm water run-off.


"They're very expensive and to be honest, as farmers, we don't get economic value out of [bioreactors]," said Robb Ewoldt, who farms 1100 acres of land in Muscatine and Scott counties.  "We get to feel good that our water is cleaner leaving our farm than it was coming on, but the economics aren't there to build one unless you can get some assistance from a federal or state agency."

Ewoldt installed a bioreactor on his land in April, 2017. He did so with the financial partnerships of the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Iowa Pork Producers Association. In total, the bioreactor cost $18,000 to install, split between Ewoldt, the NRCS and the Iowa Pork Producers Association. Ewoldt expects it to last upwards of 15 years.

The process for Ewoldt to install a bioreactor was quick; it took less than two months from conception to fruition. The NRCS was already at Ewoldt's farm working on another waterways project and the Iowa Pork Producers Association was interested in doing its own testing on the new technology, so Ewoldt says he was able to get the ball moving really quick on a bioreactor.

Today, Ewoldt says his bioreactor filters 55-60 acres of land and nearly eliminates the already low amount of nitrates found in water run-off on his farm.

The process for another farmer, David Scott of Muscatine County has been much different.

"In my mind very slowly, we started the process this spring and it's still involved in the engineering part of it," said Scott, who farms 950 acres of corn and soybeans as well as 25 acres of hay.

Scott reached out to his local NRCS office in the spring of 2017 because he was interested in installing a bioreactor. He says the NRCS looked around at his farmland and chose a site. Water samples were taken and now, Scott says, the NRCS is doing engineering studies and the process is slowly moving ahead.

It's the red tape that Senate File 512 hopes to streamline and make it easier for farmers to install technology like bioreactors.

Scott says he is opting to go through the NRCS because he wants help on how to install a bioreactor. He doesn't know how much his bioreactor will cost or how big it will be, but he's not interested in waiting for politicians in Des Moines to pass a water quality bill.

"If we all sit around and wait till somebody either pays us to do something or prods us with a stick, why, nothing happens and the problem will continue to get worse," said Scott.

The Iowa Farm Bureau supports Senate File 512. It would take taxes Iowans already pay on metered water and earmark them for a Water Quality Fund to subsidize the cost of clean water technology, like bioreactors.

Jerry Anderson, Regional Manager of the Iowa Farm Bureau, estimates if the state were in charge of the process, the timeline of putting in a bioreactor could go from three years down to one year. He says farmers would work with the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship to install them.