CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa is making incremental progress in improving the state’s water quality, but the funding being dedicated to the problem is woefully inadequate to reduce the nitrate and phosphorus levels in the state’s lakes and waterways, according to a panel of experts at Thursday’s Iowa Ideas Conference in Cedar Rapids.
Speakers on a water quality panel were split on whether voluntary or regulatory approaches are more effective in gaining landowner compliance. One suggestion was to tie federal crop insurance to the use of conservation practices as a carrot-and-stick provision of the farm bill.
“Clearly, we’ve made progress. A lot is happening, but it’s just nowhere near the scale to measure change,” said Jim Jordahl of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance. “There are pockets of really good things going on. So, from our standpoint, we need to both celebrate the successes and the incremental progress but, at the same time, recognize the monumental challenge that we have left.
“And that’s a difficult message to maintain, but that’s the space that we’re in.”
However, Chris Jones, a University of Iowa research scientist who monitors water quality with sensors at about 70 Iowa locations, said Iowa is not moving quickly enough to meet its multiyear goal of reducing water pollutants by 45 percent.
The state, he said, could easily remove incentives that have encouraged farmers to plant corn and soybeans on hundreds of thousands of marginal and low-lying acres in flood plains rather than discouraging practices like fall tillage and livestock manure runoff into waterways.
“We have this hybrid system that’s not producing the environmental outcomes that we want, and it’s really not producing — at least right now — the economic outcomes that the farmers want,” Jones said.
Iowa’s GOP-led Legislature passed and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law last spring intended to provided an estimated $270.2 million for water-quality projects over the next 11 years, according to the state’s nonpartisan data agency. There will be $4 million in new funding this budget year, another $8 million the following year and $27.3 million to $30.2 million annually through June 2029, according to the agency.
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The funds will support projects designed to filter nutrient pollutants out of Iowa waterways and to decrease soil erosion and pollutant runoff into waterways.
“It all helps,” Jordahl said. “It’s beneficial, but over time we’re going to need significantly more investment to meet the challenge because the scope of it really is enormous.”
Jones argued the appropriated funds won’t go very far in addressing the overall problem, but Dustin Miller, a Des Moines attorney and lobbyist who helped formulate the 2018 water quality legislation, said “it’s unrealistic for state to invest $4 billion to $5 billion” that experts say would be needed to address Iowa’s water-quality concerns.
TOUGH FARM YEAR
Adam Rodenberg, director of the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority, said he is working with farmers to spread the word about federal and state cost-share money available to them to invest in cover crops, buffer strips and other edge-of-field conservation practices.
However, he said, the current sluggish farm economy is making it hard for landowners to have money available for water-quality projects when they’re facing financial pressures like loan or rent payments and low commodity prices — all exacerbated by an international trade war.
Taking cropland out of production hurts their bottom lines, he said.
“Our farmers aren’t really going to make any money this year,” Rodenberg said. “You’re not seeing a lot of investment from them because of that because they have other things they’re paying off. It’s difficult right now.”
Jones said the “jury is out” whether farmers would invest voluntarily, regardless of whether there’s cost-share money available.
But in the meantime, he said, water-quality problems persist and call for some type of government involvement or participation by entities that benefit from cheap food policies to spur improvements.
That may require some type of regional approach among states contributing to the pollutants causing a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
“If we could do a few things, we would see a very immediate result of the water quality of our streams, but we lack the fortitude to do these things,” Jones said. “I reject this idea that this is going to take forever. If it takes forever, it’s because we want it to take forever.”
BUILD ON SUCCESS
Miller said many cities, industries and rural associations are working collaboratively to address water quality issues that follow standards established in the 1972 Clean Water Act.
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He viewed options — like a state-funded revolving loan funds to finance projects with multiple benefits — as a better approach than a regulatory “hammer” to force cooperative action.
“The success of the Clean Water Act of 1972 means now we don’t see rivers changing colors every day, we don’t see rivers catching fire,” Miller said. “But to get to the success that we have now in the Clean Water Act, it has cost a lot of money and it’s taken a lot of time.
“I think that’s the key — the framework is there, the bones are there, to have success. We are seeing success. It’s just a matter of what kind of time can the parties that differ on that — what will they ultimately see as success?”
Given there was major work on water quality this past legislative session, Miller was skeptical much would happen in 2019 but that could depend on the outcome of November’s general election.
“Once you act on something, it takes quite a bit of effort to do something different,” Miller said, noting it took decades for lawmakers to make changes to commercial property tax and corporate income tax laws. “Anytime you address something, it is difficult to mount up the momentum to do it.
Added Jones: “I hear people say that politics is the art of the possible. And what we’re doing here in Iowa right now is the possible.”
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