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Iowa’s watershed management authorities are impactful. But they need funding.
There is no long-term, stable financial support for such entities, creating unmet demand for local conservation practices.
Iowa’s watershed management authorities are making positive impacts — but they need more funding, according to a recent Center for Rural Affairs report.
The Iowa Legislature first enabled watershed management authorities in 2010 following the 2008 flood. They are agreements between cities, counties and soil and water conservation districts that coordinate water quality improvement and flood mitigation efforts with landowners in watersheds — or areas where water drains into a common water body.
Iowa’s 27 existing watershed management authorities cover 40 percent of the state. Across the board, they have received a patchwork of funding from all levels of government, along with community support.
However, there is no long-term, stable financial support for such entities. Federal and state grants eventually dry up. For instance, the $97 million invested into the Iowa Watershed Approach — which supported staff at a third of the authorities — was exhausted last summer. Local support helps bolster the groups, but they’re not always guaranteed.
The Center for Rural Affairs, a regional nonprofit focused on strengthening rural communities, surveyed participating Iowa watershed management authorities in early 2022 and January 2023 to “capture a snapshot” of each entity’s capacity, plans and needs.
More than two-thirds of the state’s watershed management authorities reported having completed and in-progress plans for shaping the local watershed. The surveys showed that the groups have completed more than 2,600 conservation efforts — like cover cropping, edge-of-field practices, wetland restoration — across the state.
Yet, due to funding constraints, watershed management authorities told the Center for Rural Affairs that they’re losing the employees and capacity needed for implementing such projects, creating unmet demand for local conservation practices.
“A lot of people are excited to fund conservation practices that are going to make a difference across the state. But there is a lot less funding available for that staff person,” said Kate Hansen, senior policy associate for the center and author of the report. “That person is really critical.”
Iowa’s watershed management authorities by the numbers
According to the Center for Rural Affairs surveys:
• More than 300 jurisdictions belong to a water management authority.
• Watershed management authorities have implemented more than 2,600 conservation practices statewide.
• More than $50 million in federal funding has been invested in Iowa’s watershed management authorities, followed by more than $21 million in local funding and more than $14 million in state funding.
• Watershed management authorities have hired local contractors for at least 56 projects.
Seven watershed management authorities lost significant staffing capacity in 2022, with many transitioning to bare-bones administrative support, according to the surveys. Two more may follow suit this year.
Thirteen authorities had full-time watershed management coordinators at the beginning of 2022; only seven remain now. More than 70 percent of survey respondents said having more stable funding sources for a coordinator would significantly support their efforts.
Cedar Rapids takes part in the Middle Cedar, Lower Cedar and Indian Creek watershed management authorities. The city contributes cash to each entity on an annual basis, which helps support coordinators and administrative help, along with grants.
But the Cedar River watershed covers 7,500 square miles — most of which are upstream of Cedar Rapids. The size and scope creates a constant need for funding and staff to meet demands, which often can’t be fulfilled.
“The challenge to everyone involved is monumental,” said Mary Beth Stevenson, the Cedar Rapids watersheds and source water program manager, in an email.
Jennifer Fencl, director of the environmental services department for the East Central Iowa Council of Governments, works with several watershed management authorities in eastern Iowa — including those Cedar Rapids belongs to.
Some of the groups she works with are either in between full-time coordinators or working with a part-time coordinator. While she helps out with administrative tasks, like organizing meetings and identifying funding opportunities, she can’t visit with farmers and land owners like coordinators can.
“That is a skill that we desperately need,” she said. “We're building it with these great opportunities of grant programs, but we're then losing it because of the temporary nature of grant programs.”
Fencl said that the future for funding such positions could be a combination of local funds, agribusinesses and state money.
There has never been a state-allocated budget item for watershed coordinators in Iowa, Hansen said. Having a reliable funding source would bolster growth.
“We would love to see the legislature take a look at this and see if there might be a role that the state can play in supporting these coordinators,” she said.
Stevenson, who is also the newly elected president of the Middle Cedar watershed management authority, encouraged the public to attend water management authority meetings to learn about the projects in their watershed: “Everyone can help make a difference.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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