Create a new checkoff to fund critical water quality efforts in Iowa

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Joe Bolkcom, guest columnist

We need to get serious about protecting Iowa’s soil and water our state’s mostfundamental and precious resources. This means creating a realistic, fair way to pay for soil conservation and nutrient reduction efforts. Iowa’s soils have never been worked so intensely. Insatiable global demand for grain, meat, dairy, poultry and biofuels is pushing agribusinesses and farmers to till every acre. Iowa’s rich soil, created over the ages, is being lost at a rapid rate.

Our increasingly extreme weather makes this longstanding problem worse. Our state’s top scientists wrote and signed The Iowa Climate Statement 2013. In it, they report that Iowa’s changing climate has “…disrupted agricultural production during the past two years and is projected to become even more harmful in coming decades.”

The people who know our soils and climate best warn us that intense rain will continue to dramatically increase soil erosion and degrade Iowa future agriculture productivity as the “wet years get wetter and dry years get dryer and hotter.” More frequent heavy rains wash topsoil and nutrients from our farms, pollute our lakes and rivers, increase the cost of drinking water, and are responsible for the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s fight over Iowa’s polluted water is actually a side effect of our state’s ongoing soil erosion and nutrient management disaster.

We know how to fix these problems. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy lays out a voluntary plan to reduce soil loss and water pollution. The price tag is $100 million to $1.2 billion annually. I think the strategy can be successful, but only if it actually happens. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary plan and most voluntary plans have failed. Despite the examples of excellent conservation work by Iowa landowners, the strategy won’t work if we don’t get serious about who will pay the bill.

The 2014 Iowa State University Iowa Farm and Rural Life survey found that 55 percent of farmers “agreed that short term pressure to make profits make it difficult to invest in conservation.” Most Iowa farmland is rented and 56 percent of farmers in that same survey agreed that “landlords are often unwilling to spend money on conservation.”

To preserve Iowa’s most important economic assets for the future, everyone has to pitch in. That has led some people to say all Iowans should be taxed to make necessary improvements to Iowa farms. Is that fair?

If you live or do business in Iowa’s cities or town, mandatory federal regulations make sure that you pay for water treatment and anti‐pollution efforts through your monthly water and sewer bills. Taxpayers already provide around $1 billion a year in payments to support Iowa private landowners. In this year alone, Iowa taxpayers will directly invest another $37.5 million to support private landowner conservation efforts. At that rate, our urgent water and soil problems will be fixed — several hundred years from now.

A new, substantial, ongoing source of soil conservation and water quality dollars is needed. We don’t need a tax increase. And, we cannot solve this problem by taking money from our underfunded schools.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s use the voluntary checkoff approach that corn and soybean growers, pork, cattle, poultry and egg producers already use to generate tens of million annually to support their marketing and research plans. The products from Iowa’s agricultural land created an astonishing $30 billion of value in 2014. We should use commodity checkoffs to reinvest a small percent of that value back into the business of soil conservation and water quality. Check offs mean every Iowa landowner and landlord will pay their fair share and have skin in the game for results. That’s what we need in order to succeed.

December’s record shattering temperatures, rains, and intense flooding are signs of more extreme weather to come. More business as usual will doom Iowa’s agricultural economy and our grandchildren’s future.

What are we waiting for?

• Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) is Iowa Senate Majority Whip and chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Comments: joe.bolkcom@legis.iowa.gov

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