Will Iowa Make Water Quality a Priority in 2016?

Steve Lekwa

A huge amount of print and air time has been devoted to Iowa’s growing water quality crisis in the past year. Iowans hopefully realize that this isn’t just a Des Moines or even Iowa issue. It’s an increasingly alarming issue across the entire Midwest. Most parties, whether urban or rural, conservative or liberal, are in agreement that this is a problem that needs fixing, though a few with their heads in the sand feel that, like climate change, it’s nothing to worry about.

Excessive nutrients in Iowa’s surface waters come from the land, and the vast majority of Iowa’s land is in agricultural production. The state has adopted a Nutrient Reduction Strategy with valid goals and solutions, but the plan identifies no realistic time lines, nor does it offer a source of dedicated funding. Nutrient discharges from cities and industries are already heavily regulated, but the state’s plan relies on voluntary participation for farms. Available funding has thus far fallen woefully short of what’s needed to help farmers initiate needed reforms. Some farms are already heavily involved in attempting to solve the problem; often with huge landowner investments, but these important efforts fall far short of what’s needed to make significant progress in reducing our state’s excessive nutrient problem. Some estimates say that it could take 100 years to reach the goals identified for nutrient reduction at the current rate of change. Most would prefer to see the problem addressed in less than 20 years.

Corn/soybean monocultures that cover much of our agricultural land are annual plants that leave no living roots in the soil for nearly half of every year. They are incapable of capturing or holding nutrients or carbon beyond the few months of the growing season. Proven techniques to reduce nutrient loss from the land exist. One of the most effective is restoring wetlands to slow water loss from the land and to help capture and filter nutrients before they get into rivers and streams. Another successful technique is restoring deep-rooted perennial vegetation (prairies and woodlands) in strategic areas that will do the most to increase water infiltration, capture nutrients, filter out sediment and store more carbon in the soil. Strategic placement, rather than random and voluntary placement, of these practices is critical if we are to get the most value from the needed investment.

Coalitions of public and private interests have formed throughout the Midwest to coordinate efforts on the land and to secure funding. Pheasants Forever is a major player in raising private funds at the local level to support needed conservation practices. Ducks Unlimited and other conservation organizations also bring private funds to bear. Municipal, county, state and federal government programs are also necessary to prioritize sites and oversee needed work. One of the weakest links in these public/private partnerships appears to be state leadership and funding here in Iowa.

Some key legislators and the governor are adamant that they won’t raise taxes to get the job done, nor will they consider making the needed work mandatory. I agree that voluntary participation is a wonderful goal, but if it’s going to remain voluntary, it’s going to cost money to address the problems in anything like a meaningful time frame. It’s in all of our interests that the funding be made available as additional incentives to help landowners get the needed work in place. The best path to that end is for the legislature to finally fund the Conservation Trust Fund through adoption of a 1/8 of one cent increase in sales tax as called for in the Iowa Waters and Lands Legacy referendum passed by a large majority of Iowans several years ago. Isn’t it time that Iowans stop having to worry that many of our rivers and lakes become too polluted for human contact, much less drinking, at least part of every year? The way ahead looks better if the legislature will get the ball rolling in 2016. Otherwise, Iowa will just have to let the federal courts try to sort it out and be stuck with nothing getting done as the issue drags on through years of appeals and legal wrangling.