Branstad touts Nutrient Reduction Strategy to improve Iowa's water quality

'We need to learn and we need to accumulate data'

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DES MOINES — More farmers likely would adopt clean-water conservation practices if they had reliable data to show them the economic benefits of their investments, according to a Tama County farmer who joined Gov. Terry Branstad at the Iowa State Fair Monday to tout state cost-share practices.

John Weber, a Dysart farmer who previously served as president of the Iowa Pork Producers, said he has been impressed by the positive environmental and economic results he has seen from using buffer strips and cover crops to preserve soil and reduce nitrogen runoff from his Tama County land. He said he also has modified his nitrogen fertilizer applications to maximize effectiveness while preventing pollutants from reaching the Cedar River watershed.

“I really became sold on the use of cover crops,” said Weber — who planted cover crops on 800 acres of corn and soybean fields. He joined Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey at a water-quality exhibit in the Agriculture Building at the Iowa State Fair to draw attention to programs and practices for urban and rural parts of the state that are part of a science-based Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“In the big picture, agriculture is starving for data,” Weber told reporters attending the governor’s weekly news conference. “We need this kind of data desperately to defend what we’re doing and to learn how to change, to make improvements in Iowa’s water quality. We need to learn and we need to accumulate data. This is not going to happen overnight.”

Northey said about $3.8 million in cost share funds have been obligated in 97 counties to help more than 1,900 farmers install nutrient-reduction practices that include cover crops, no-till or strip till, and using a nitrification inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer. The state funds will be matched by nearly $6 million from Iowa farmers who are investing in practices focused on limiting nutrient loss “even in a challenging time economically in agriculture,” he said.

Northey said there currently are 45 “demonstration projects” underway around the state to show how nitrogen and phosphorus runoff can be reduced by land-management practices, and Branstad added that Iowa State University and the University of Iowa have projects that evaluate structures and practices designed to keep farm chemicals out of the state’s rivers and lakes — data which will be critical to the long-term success of the programs.

“We want that; farmers want that because that’s how you see what works,” the governor said. “It needs to be data-driven. We need to get as much data as possible so farmers can make the best decisions.”

To do that, government at the state and federal levels in conjunction with private resources need to “ramp up” the effort via a long-term commitment, Branstad said. “We need a long-range, reliable source of funding because right now we have more farmers that want to install these practices than we have cost-share money to meet the needs.”

Branstad said Monday that major policy decisions such as the long-term water quality plan sometimes require several legislative sessions to win approval — pointing to a major property tax relief package, education reforms and passage of a biochemical tax credit as examples. He said he remains optimistic a water-quality compromise can emerge during the 2017 legislative session.

At the start of the 2016 session, Branstad unveiled a plan to divert to water quality programs some future revenue from the local-option sales tax devoted to school infrastructure projects. According to his office’s estimates, the plan would have generated $4.7 billion over 32 years for water quality programs.

But legislators of both political parties were cool to the proposal, since it dipped into a funding stream approved by voters for education.

The governor later through his support behind a plan that won bipartisan support in the Iowa House last session that proposed to shift $478 million over 13 years to water quality projects from a water-metering tax and the gambling-funded state infrastructure account. However, majority Senate Democrats balked at that plan fearing it would shift money from other priorities like education.

Branstad has since modified his position, saying he would be open to repurposing the penny sales tax for school infrastructure set to expire 2029 by continuing the tax and splitting the ongoing proceeds with five-eighths going to education and three-eighths going into a constitutionally protected natural resources trust that Iowa voters approved in 2010.

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