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Vilsack: Iowa at 'critical point' in addressing water quality

Ag secretary says state leaders must 'step up' with funding, guidance

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa is at “a critical point, a historic moment with an opportunity to create a program that will address both water quality and quantity threats,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday.

The former Iowa governor said it is essential state leaders “step up in a more significant way than they have in the past” to provide funding and guidance for efforts to reduce water pollution and make the land more absorbent of increasingly frequent heavy rainfall events.

A large infusion of state funds, he said, would complement the more than $2 billion in US Department of Agriculture conservation funds directed to Iowa during his seven-year tenure as secretary.

Together they would create the “critical mass” of funds needed to make progress in the effort to reduce pollution levels caused by excess nutrients, bacteria, algae and sediment in surface waters, Vilsack told several dozen state and local officials and community leaders gathered at the Geonetric Building, 415 12th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.

If Iowans fail to prioritize such efforts, Vilsack said they may find federal judges dictating how they farm their land — a reference to a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northern Iowa counties asserting that county drainage districts are point-source polluters subject to the strictures of the federal Clean Water Act.

Vilsack questioned whether conservation regulations could be enforced if they were enacted and defended the voluntary nature of USDA conservation programs, which have distributed $45.4 billion to U.S. farmers and landowners since 1995 and about $4.35 billion to Iowa farmers and landowners during that same period.

While acknowledging little water quality improvement in Iowa, he said great strides have been made in other regions, most notably the Chesapeake Bay and the Upper Mississippi River.

Vilsack said almost every acre in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has at least one conservation practice in effect.

More than 82,000 conservation systems have been implemented there since 2009, helping to trap and control runoff of nutrients and sediment on more than 3.6 million acres, according to the USDA.

From 2009 to 2015, nitrogen loads from tributaries have declined by 8 percent, phosphorus loads by 20 percent and sediment loads by 7 percent, the agency said.

“The hypoxic area in the bay is shrinking and crabs and other aquatic animals are bouncing back,” Vilsack said

In Iowa, he said, one conservation practice is not enough.

“We have to have farmers engage in suites of practices and take a watershed approach. We are trying to get that done by asking the state to step up” with more funds to defray the costs of such installations, he said.

If it doesn’t happen in the next legislative session, it won’t get done in 2018, which is another election year, he said.

Cedar Rapids City Council member Justin Shields implored Vilsack for help in securing federal funds for permanent flood protection infrastructure in the city.

Vilsack said flood-protection infrastructure is outside the USDA’s jurisdiction.

He recommended, however, that local officials lobby their representatives in Congress to restore funding for the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.

The former, also known as Public law 566, if funded, could pay for staff to develop a large-scale flood protection program for the state, he said.

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