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Conservation money could be better spent: environmental group

Iowa gets the most money, but has seen little change

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Taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth for the $3 billion a year they’re spending on federal conservation programs, a leading environmental organization says.

Although taxpayers have spent $29.8 billion on U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation efforts over the past decade, those expenditures are not leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment, according to the Environmental Working Group, which today released a database documenting USDA conservation expenditures.

“The voluntary nature of federal conservation programs is their fundamental problem,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group.

“People have to volunteer, and they volunteer for the programs that help them the most rather than providing the most benefit to the environment,” Cox said.

In Iowa — the leading recipient of USDA conservation funds with more than $4.36 billion since 1995 — there has been little change in the level of surface water pollution caused by nitrates, bacteria, algae and sediment.

While water quality in Iowa may not have improved dramatically during the past two decades, significant gains have been made in other regions, most notably the Chesapeake Bay and western Lake Erie, according to Kaveh Sadeghzadeh, communications director for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We believe voluntary conservation works. We help producers put in place practices that make sense for them and the environment,” Sadeghzadeh said.

Sadeghzadeh cited the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which has a project underway on the Upper Cedar River watershed, as an example of the USDA targeting resources toward specific conservation goals that can yield measurable results.

Most USDA conservation payments go to farmers and landowners who convert cropland to grassland for a specified length of time under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Of the $45.4 billion in USDA conservation expenditures since 1995, $34.9 billion, or 77 percent, has gone to CRP participants. CRP is even more dominant in Iowa, where $4 billion of the $4.36 billion in payments — 91.6 percent — has gone to CRP participants.

The USDA’s Sadeghzadeh and most other conservationists say CRP has reduced soil erosion, kept pollutants out of the water and provided valuable wildlife habitat.

Dick Jensen, a farmer and member of the Fayette County Soil and Water Commission, said his 140 acres of CRP grasslands kept his soil in place during repeated heavy rains in August and September.

Both Jensen and Matt O’Connor, Pheasants Forever’s Iowa habitat coordinator, say soil erosion and water quality in Iowa would have been much worse without CRP.

But CRP’s fatal weakness, O’Connor said, is its lack of permanence.

As the Environmental Working Group noted in its report, landowners between 2007 and 2014 withdrew 15.8 million acres from CRP in response to high crop prices.

“If water quality is important to you, we need to buy the ground or protect it with easements. Renting the ground is not going to get it done,” O’Connor said.

“You hear that argument a lot — that the environment would have been worse off without USDA conservation programs. But the question isn’t, ‘Do they make a difference?’ It’s whether they are delivering maximum environmental benefits for the money invested,” Cox of the Environmental Working Group said.

Does the alleged imprecise targeting of federal conservation funds raise doubts about the efficient use of state funds in the event that officials approve a sales tax increase to fill the state’s empty Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund?

No, said Jan Glendening, co-chairwoman of a 20-member coalition working to secure long-term, dedicated state funding of water quality initiatives.

“Over the last 20 years, advances in science and data management have helped us identify the conservation practices that give us the best bang for the buck. We know what to do. We just need the money to do it,” she said.

As examples she cited 15 Watershed Management Authorities in Iowa that have formulated plans for improving water quality.

“The plans are ready to go. They just need to be funded,” Glendening said.

Another example, she said, is the state-federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which develops wetlands that have been located strategically with advanced computer technology.

“We have identified 7,000 potential CREP wetlands, which can remove 52 percent of the nitrates from tile drainage water, but we are able to fund just three to five of them per year,” Glendening said.

“Throwing money at a problem without accountability is a recipe for failure,” said Jennifer Terry, environmental advocacy leader for the Des Moines Water Works, which has sued Calhoun, Buena Vista and Sac counties, saying underground tile conducts nitrate-laden water from farm fields into the Raccoon River, a source of its customers’ drinking water.

“We know the problem. We are just not addressing it in a targeted manner,” Terry said.

The Environmental Working Group database shows that counties in the Raccoon River watershed have relatively low participation in CRP and that the majority of CRP payments go to residents of counties that are not mission critical for the state’s highest environmental priority — reducing nutrient pollution in the waters of Iowa and farther downstream.

For example, of the 18 counties that have received at least $60 million in CRP payments since 1995, 10 are in the southernmost three tiers of counties where row-crop agriculture is less intensive than in the rest of the state.

Of the 20 counties with the lowest CRP payments, six are part of the Des Moines lobe landform region characterized by intensive row crop agriculture, extensive subsurface drainage and high discharges of nitrates into surface water. Two of those six — Buena Vista and Sac — are among the three counties named as defendants in the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

“Throwing money at the problem is not working. We need to target our resources more effectively,” said organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke of rural Fairfield, a candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary in 2010.

Current USDA conservation programs, he said, allow “farmers to do what they want to do rather than what needs to be done.”

As with the Environmental Working Group, Thicke said farmers should be required to adopt a suite of conservation practices sufficient to achieve tolerable levels of nutrient loss from their land.

Cox said the Environmental Working Group advocates a strengthened conservation compliance provision that conditions receipt of federal payments on meeting specified goals.

In addition to CRP. the USDA has disbursed funds under three other programs.

From 1997 to 2015, almost $8 billion has gone to participants in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides 350 options supporting, among other objectives, livestock confinement and irrigation systems and crop, grazing and water control management.

A menu of 200 options is available under the Conservation Stewardship Program, which has disbursed almost $2.2 billion from 2011 to 2014.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program has disbursed $319 million from 2004 to 2015 to help manage forests, grazing, stream corridors and wildlife habitat.

The database can be accessed at https://conservation.ewg.org.

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