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When it comes to cleaning up Iowa’s dirty water, do we need to stop the insanity or persuade farmers and landowners to embrace a “new vision” for agriculture?
That was the gist of the debate on an Iowa Ideas panel I recently moderated. Chris Jones, IIHR research engineer at the University of Iowa and one of the leading voices and researchers on water quality problems in Iowa, called for new laws to stop harmful farming practices. John Norwood, a Polk County Soil and Water Conservation commissioner, argued for convincing farmers to adopt conservation practices and new crops through incentives and changes in federal crop insurance.
It was the classic Iowa water quality debate. We’ve tried politically acceptable voluntary approaches for decades. The state Nutrient Reduction Strategy showed us how cropland is the main source of nitrate and phosphorus pollution and spelled out voluntary measures to reduce nutrient-laden runoff into waterways and on to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
So how has that voluntary approach worked out?
“It’s not leading to much change on the ground,” said Mike Schmidt, staff attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council, who also took part in the discussion. “We’ve tried the voluntary approach for decades. We’ve been doing that since the Dust Bowl. And our water quality is not getting better.”
Des Moines has struggled this year to use surface water sources — the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, fouled by toxins from algae blooms fed by farm runoff. Ottumwa’s aging water treatment plant also has had to deal with pollution in the Des Moines River. The state failed to stop an 11,000-head cattle feedlot from being built in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek in Northeast Iowa, currently one of Iowa’s few “outstanding” waterways. Efforts to convince the Environmental Protection Commission to protect the environment have fallen on deaf ears. The Legislature and governor are defending the status quo preferred by campaign donors representing large, powerful agricultural interests. The state Supreme Court has chosen to remain on the sidelines.
“Let’s face it. This system is designed to provide cheap commodity grain to large corporations that also want to sell stuff to the farmers. That whole scheme has got to change if we’re going to get the environmental outcomes that we want,” Jones said. “But we need laws. It’s painfully obvious.”
Jones takes aim at what he calls “low-hanging fruit.” He would ban spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground where it is more prone to run into waterways. He also argues farmers should not be allowed to plant in the frequently flooded two-year flood plain, which would take about 400,000 acres out of production.
“Why are we doing that? It’s insane,” Jones said.
Jones would ban fall tillage, which Iowa State University has said for decades is a poor practice. “Why do we allow that? It’s insane,” Jones said.
The master matrix used to score livestock confinement projects should be altered to discourage plans that allow the over-application of manure. And Jones would require farmers to adhere to fertilizer use guidance provided by ISU, which could curtail the over-application of nutrients.
“How on earth do we ask taxpayers to pay for these edge-of-field treatments to capture the excess nutrients, while at the same time we give farmers permission to apply as much as they want? It’s the dumbest policy on earth,” Jones said.
Norwood took issue with Jones’ tone.
“We’ve got to get away from the name calling and the bad actors and we’ve got to find a way to get people to come around to a new vision of Iowa agriculture,” Norwood said.
Norwood contends a water quality improvement strategy must start at the “vision level,” emphasizing sustainability and resiliency. The new vision would include efforts to protect soil, improve water quality and mitigate flooding. Out of 23 million acres of farmland in Iowa, Norwood argues about 10 percent could be put to better use. Crop insurance, he said, should not be paid on land in the two-year flood plain. The federal Farm Bill should give landowners more options than corn and soybeans.
He said the key is finding “financial drivers” that would persuade landowners to embrace the vision. He’d also use public dollars on green infrastructure, including turning drainage districts into water management districts.
“Republicans and Democrats, they’re all good people, all trying to do the right thing. But if we don’t have consensus on the vision first you’re really not going to get anywhere very quickly,” Norwood said. “(Farmers) are a very industrious lot. We just need to give them the financial signal and help them make some of these changes.”
“These farmers might be industrious. And they might be ingenious and all these other adjectives you want to say about it,” Jones said. “But the truth is, a lot of them are millionaires, very wealthy guys. They’re making three times as much as the average Iowan.
“If we want clean water next year or in five years, we need to do things now. I’m not satisfied to sit around and wait for a new vision to take hold across 80,000 Iowa farmers,” Jones said.
Jones has written on his blog that pollution from land owned by those wealthy guys, mostly white, are causing problems in communities such as Ottumwa, where median incomes are low, public resources are scarce and immigrants work at the local pork plant. His contention that the water quality debate has a social justice component angered a Republican lawmaker who contacted Jones’ superiors.
“People need to talk about these things. We are reluctant to stigmatize the bad things that are happening on the landscape. And the way to do that is start talking about potential laws,” Jones said.
“We’ve tried this engagement with farmers now for half a century. And where has it gotten us?” Jones said.
“To me, your language is part of the problem, the way you’re speaking right now,” Norwood said. “If you want to get people to participate you have to start with the vision. You have to treat people with respect and the fact is we’re not doing things as we had the last 50 years.”
“So are people in Ottumwa being treated with respect? Are people in Des Moines being treated with respect?” Jones responded.
With respect to reality, this debate is largely on the sidelines. Statehouse Republicans have little interest in water quality laws. By the same token, I doubt many Democratic candidates will be running next year on new ag regulations. Voters don’t seem interested, although fouled drinking water, closed beaches and dirty trout streams may have an impact.
“I think we can solve this issue if we get everybody rowing in the same direction,” Norwood said.
Just don’t get out of the boat. After years of looking for volunteers and “win-win” solutions, the water is anything but fine.
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