State and federal officials have suggested Labor Day is a target date for finishing a “work plan” to reduce farm chemical run-off into lakes, streams and — ultimately — the Gulf of Mexico.

A few months ago, Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey unveiled a draft plan that calls for voluntary measures to reduce nitrate run-off.

“They don’t get credit for changing, but they certainly don’t get penalized as well, but they engage because it’s the right thing to do and we give them the tools to make it happen,” Northey says.

Officials in the Environmental Protection Agency have applauded the voluntary strategy. Karl Brooks, a regional administrator with the EPA, says the agency needs to see yearly progress, however, suggesting whatever “work plan” is agreed to this year by state and federal officials, it will be changed.

“It’s entirely possible that, you know, the ag producers themselves, once they’re committed into this, are going to want to make it succeed,” Brooks says.

Critics say voluntary efforts haven’t worked thus far and it’s time to enforce strict standards on farm chemical application rates and limit how much manure can be spread on fields. Des Moines Water Works general manager Bill Stowe says nitrate levels have been so high this year his utility had to spend seven-thousand dollars a day filtering drinking water for its half-million customers.

“The idea that self-regulation…somehow will lead to optimal economic and environmental protection just is ludicrous based upon history and based upon the very real fact that our drinking water sources right now are being directly threatened,” Stowe says.

A coalition of environmental groups and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is threatening to file a lawsuit over regulation of large-scale livestock facilities and farm chemical run-off if the EPA doesn’t start enforcing stricter standards.