Arkansas poultry farmer Jeff Marley grows 240,000 birds a year on his farm outside Fayetteville. But it’s because of city dwellers in Tulsa, OK, that he rarely spreads manure on his pastureland.

Marley sells most of the 1,500 tons of manure his birds generate via a litter bank. He doesn’t store it on his property even for a few days, he said. As soon as the hauler shows up and loads his truck, the manure is gone.

“I spend more time managing my litter than I do my chickens. There is no comparison in terms of what we did and what we do today,” Marley said. “We used to pile the litter. We didn’t care where we piled it. We would never consider doing that today.”

Nearly 15 years after the Tulsa Metropolitan Water Authority sued six poultry companies and one small Arkansas city for contaminating Tulsa’s water supply with phosphorus from manure, most of the waste never touches the land in the watershed that feeds Tulsa’s lakes. Instead, it goes to Kansas, Missouri and other areas not near the watershed, called the Eucha-Spavinaw for its two lakes. Marley’s farm is in a neighboring watershed, but he still has the manure hauled out. Why spread it at home when it’s so valuable elsewhere?

The Tulsa lawsuit was just one of several in which an urban entity has blamed agriculture for polluting its water supply. In 2013, environmental groups in Washington State sued Cow Palace, an 11,000-head industrial dairy, claiming that its manure lagoons were polluting the water supply of the Yakima Valley. In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued three rural Iowa counties, alleging that the drainage tiles used by the counties’ agricultural drainage districts were a conduit for nitrates into the Raccoon River, and ultimately, Des Moines’ water supply. Other urban regions, such as Toledo, are trying to determine the best way to tackle agriculture pollution that has made its water unfit to drink.

Nitrate, phosphorus from fertilizers, and sediment pollute drinking water and surface water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, too. It’s an issue that officials along the Susquehanna and the Potomac rivers are watching closely. Both rivers supply many cities with drinking water and have agriculture-intensive areas. No entity has filed a lawsuit over nitrates as in Des Moines, but many water plant managers and regulators are monitoring the Iowa case.

The Potomac River, for example, supplies drinking water to nearly 5 million people, many of them Washington, DC, residents. The utilities in the area have formed the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership, which meets regularly to communicate about keeping the water safe. It’s working pretty well, said Curtis Dalpra, communications manager for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission is forming a similar partnership.

The urban cities and counties are pushing back on agriculture so their ratepayers and taxpayers don’t have to bear the enormous cleanup costs. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act require cities and water authorities to maintain safe standards for clean water; if the entities can’t meet those, they need to increase treatment, and ultimately, raise rates to pay for that. Agriculture, meanwhile, is exempt from many of the requirements under the Clean Water Act, and much of what farmers do to clean up their polluted runoff is voluntary. The government offers incentives, such as money for cover crops and technical assistance to install bioreactors and buffers. But federal and state regulators can’t force a farmer to undertake those measures.

Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, there are goals for pollution reduction from each sector. The agricultural sector is the largest source of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and large reductions are needed. But, if agriculture doesn’t deliver, the federal and state authorities will turn to the urban sectors and seek greater pollution reductions from the sources they can regulate, including sewage treatment plants and stormwater systems.

“It’s absolutely true — if you look at the math in the Chesapeake Bay, agriculture is a major pollutant source, and unless we improve our ability to reduce agricultural pollution, the burden will be placed on the urban sector,” said Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Ann Swanson. “Make no mistake, the urban sector is not off the hook, but we need to do more than just improve the urban sector to get the job done.”

Many sewage plants have already been upgraded, and at a certain point, efforts to reduce their pollution will reach a point of diminishing returns. The cost to remove additional pounds of nitrogen from a sewage-treatment plant that is already highly effective will be much higher for each additional pound than the cost to remove nitrogen from agricultural land.

Large landscapes, big solutions

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is starting to look at some larger landscape solutions to pollution problems. When Ernie Shea became the facilitator of the Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge in 2015, he was looking to control pollution from farms, but also to bring constituencies together so that policies were uniform across Delaware, Maryland and Virginia and communication was open.

His inspiration came from initiatives in the Pacific Northwest and Montana, where large landowners and government agencies have come together to preserve land, clean up pollution and ensure property rights. Of utmost importance, Shea said, is a clearinghouse for information on best practices and preventing pollution as well as a set of rules on manure transport consistent across the three states.

“My sense is that there’s a better way forward“ than lawsuits and acrimony, said Shea, who has worked with soil conservation districts and agriculture for close to three decades. “Instead of sitting back and waiting to be sued, you problem solve and work it inside out. That is what we’re trying to do on Delmarva.”

Shea referenced the Alan Hudson lawsuit, which became a bitter chapter in environmental-agriculture relations. The Waterkeeper Alliance sued Hudson and Perdue Farms over allegedly polluting a tributary of the Pocomoke River. Hudson and Perdue won, but the relationship with environmental groups was fractured, and many farmers are worried about more litigation. Instead, Shea said, farmers and engineers and hydrologists and environmental groups should be working together and helping each other.

Such cooperation is happening in many other states. Wisconsin has built 17 anaerobic digesters that turn dairy manure into energy. Ohio has leveraged its Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, once reserved for sewage-treatment facilities, to restore streams and wetlands. Indiana farmers are installing two-stage ditches that control pollution and are encouraging a system of no-till farming that reduces erosion and pesticide application.

“There’s innovation all across the country, and we should be examining it and bringing the best of those ideas home,” Swanson said. “The more innovation, and the more practices we can bring to agriculture, the more chances we have of saving the Chesapeake Bay.”

Court-mandated litter solution

The Chesapeake Bay watershed thinks of itself as a leader on environmental matters. And yet farmers in Arkansas — not known as a state with tough environmental and agriculture regulations — seem to be ahead of watershed states in controlling their phosphorus runoff. Farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula, the nation’s third largest chicken growing area, are still storing manure close to watercourses and awaiting transport for close to 200,000 tons of excess manure.

So why and how did Arkansas, the second largest poultry-producing state, control its manure problem? The answer is because of a lawsuit more than a decade ago, and through the creation of a marketplace for poultry manure. The paradigm that the suit set up continues to dictate how, when and how much manure farmers spread on their land in at least one watershed, known as the Eucha-Spavinaw, and in many cases beyond it.

Oklahoma and Arkansas have fought for decades over who was responsible for maintaining a clean water supply to Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw as well as others fed by the Arkansas and Illinois Rivers. In 1992, the legal wrangling between the states led to a Supreme Court ruling that upstream states must meet the water quality demands of downstream states, and Arkansas is upstream from the lakes.

By 2001, Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw, which supply metropolitan Tulsa with its water, were becoming increasingly fouled. Tulsa leaders did not want ratepayers to foot the bill to clean up the water quality problems from phosphorus that originated in Arkansas. So, the Tulsa Metropolitan Water Authority filed a lawsuit against the city of Decatur, AR, and six poultry companies, accusing them of polluting Tulsa’s drinking water supply.

After two years of court hearings and negotiations, the water authority and the poultry companies settled their case. The city of Decatur would upgrade its sewage treatment plant. The poultry companies would pay $7.5 million. Part of that money helped establish a market-based litter bank so that farmers in other states that wanted the Arkansas manure would be able to get it.

After reviewing evidence from University of Arkansas scientists as well as other experts, the judge settled on a phosphorus limit of 300 parts per million in soil samples. Immediately, 15 percent of the manure in the watershed was exported. A couple of years later, the judge halved the phosphorus limits, to 150 parts per million. Every year, the percentage of exported manure rose, and the amount of manure applied to fields dropped.

In 2015, more than 90 percent of the litter left the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed for Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Only 10 percent is spread on the watershed’s land, and even that is “too much for some people,” according to Andrew Sharpley, a leading soil scientist at the University of Arkansas.

The judge appointed Sheri Herron, a longtime poultry company employee, to run the manure exchange, called BMPs Inc. Herron had $1.5 million to jump-start the effort. About half of that money came from the poultry companies; the rest is from state and federal grants. Now, Herron said, she is paid on commission.

“We have phenomenal markets. I have more than 400 buyers in my system,” Herron said. “We have more leads than we have poop to go around.”

Piles of manure are frowned upon because, should it rain, the pile becomes liquid manure and falls under a different EPA regulation, said Karl VanDevender, a University of Arkansas extension agent.

“The general recommendation is don’t make a pile if you can avoid it at all. If you must, cover it and get it out of there,” he said.

In Marley’s case, he applies his manure about once every three years — far less often than Chesapeake farmers, some of whom apply it twice a year.

“Years ago, nobody would have thought anything of [spreading manure],” said Dave McCreery, a longtime poultry grower who works at the University of Arkansas’ research farm. “We didn’t know how bad the stuff leached.”

In Oklahoma, farmers were at first frustrated with limits after the lawsuit. But now they understand, said Josh Payne, an animal waste specialist at Oklahoma State University. “In the past, we didn’t manage the manure the way we should have,” he said. “We were naive. We have a much better understanding now.”

Despite huge reductions in the amount of litter applied, the amount of phosphorus in the soils is not coming down at the rate scientists had hoped. That is in part because phosphorus moves slowly. Water quality in the lakes has improved, but upgrading the Decatur plant accounted for some of that.

There is also the matter of where the litter is going. Arkansas farmers need nutrient management plans, but the farmers accepting their manure do not necessarily need one, leading some to believe Arkansas is simply exporting its problem.

“Is it the right solution? Of course it’s not the right solution,” said Andre Dight, a Kansas resident who has worked in the manure-to-energy business for several years and previously managed poultry farms. “You’re buying time. You’re saturating one sponge, and then, you’re going to move on to another one.”

A lawsuit with a ripple effect

Farmers nationwide have always looked to Iowa for inspiration. Iowa was one of the first states to adapt large-scale wind farms, which provide farmers with extra revenue to hedge against grain price volatility. Iowa also bet big on ethanol, gleaning millions of dollars in subsidies that have helped farmers hedge their bets in uncertain times. Iowa is home to the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, which develops some of the best management practices implemented around the nation to control pollution.

But in 2015, farmers and regulators turned to the Hawkeye State for another reason: The Des Moines Water Works, the utility that provides the city and metropolitan area with its drinking water, filed a lawsuit against three rural Iowa counties. The lawsuit alleged that tile drains employed by drainage districts there act as conduits for nitrates to move from farm fields into the Raccoon River.

The utility wants federal oversight of the drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, under the Clean Water Act. Attorneys for the counties have denied the field tiles are contributing to Des Moines’ nitrate problems and want the lawsuit dismissed.

The lawsuit divided Iowa, with many urban residents cheering the effort so they would not have to pay increased rates to cover the high costs of increased nitrate removal, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But many rural residents and legislators were appalled; one tried to ban the state from doing any business with the city.

Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association, said that if the city loses, the agriculture sector might conclude they didn’t need to cut pollution. Then, he said, everyone will have lost.

“Even after the lawsuit is done, we’re going to be funding bioreactors, and cover crops and buffers. The solutions remain the same,” Wolf said. “My attitude about this is, we should be walking together and collaborating. This is not just about Des Moines, it’s about the state of Iowa, it’s about the Raccoon River emptying into the Des Moines, and the Des Moines emptying into the Mississippi.”

Wolf said he’s worked collaboratively with Des Moines Water Works for close to a decade, and was hoping to continue. But Water Works Chief Bill Stowe told the Des Moines Register that the utility sued because it had no choice.

“No other business lets you take a pipe from your business and run it to the waters of the state or the U.S. and not be regulated,” he said. “But agriculture does this every day in this state, and that’s a problem.”

But another city in Iowa went in a different direction. Cedar Rapids is part of a $4.3 million project in its watershed to encourage farmers to put in practices that reduce nitrates coming from tile drains with the hope that such practice will protect the river. Cedar Rapids has deep ties to agriculture, said its public works director, Steve Hershner. Its residents and companies process and ship much of the grain, corn and soybeans grown north of the city, and it would rather invest in practices than litigation. But, Hershner notes, nitrate levels are climbing, and farmers will have to implement many practices and do so relatively quickly to see a difference.

The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance is also taking action, seeking to prevent sediment from entering the waters that supply 80,000 people in Missouri and Iowa. It is trying to persuade farmers to implement voluntary practices.

Wolf wants to see more projects like Cedar Rapids and Rathbun. What the waters of the United States need, he said, is hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from the agricultural sector, and not costly litigation.

“I think we might have reached the limits of what we might be able to ask of our wastewater folks. For them to go much lower than the standards that they’re being asked to meet is frankly, a waste of money that we don’t have,” Wolf said. “It’s time to go upstream and work in a partnership and finance the work that needs to be done.”

Editor’s note: Some of this reporting and writing appeared in a report for the Abell Foundation.