Iowa conservation committee rejects mandatory buffer strip measures

Buffer strips good idea, just shouldn't be required, members decide

Vegetation grows on a buffer strip on both sides of a waterway of a farm field in Easton, Minn. The Iowa Soil Conservati
Vegetation grows on a buffer strip on both sides of a waterway of a farm field in Easton, Minn. The Iowa Soil Conservation & Water Committee on Thursday rejected resolutions that called for encouraging lawmakers to mandate conservation practices, including buffer strips along waterways. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The state’s Soil Conservation & Water Committee on Thursday rejected resolutions calling for mandatory conservation measures — a proposal supported earlier this year by hundreds of county conservation district commissioners.

One of the resolutions would have encouraged state lawmakers to ban planting crops within 30 feet of streams, thereby creating buffer strips to reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff.

The four resolutions — approved in August by the Conservation Districts of Iowa, comprised of 500 soil and water conservation district commissioners — went to the Soil Conservation & Water Quality Committee, a nine-member group appointed by the governor. The committee includes six farmers from different regions of the state and one member each to represent cities, mining and tree farming.

On Thursday, committee members voted to reject the resolutions.

Committee members primarily objected to state mandates, saying the proposals may have admirable goals but would be difficult to implement.

Buffer strips are “a practice that should remain in the toolbox,” said state committee member Sherman Lundy, of Cedar Falls, the committee’s mining industry representative.

“But the idea of requiring permanent buffer strips simply to protect streams ... this is a very complex issue,” he said. “What’s a stream? Is a stream a ditch? Because it functions very much in the same way.”

Lundy said requiring buffer strips would be akin to the federal government’s proposal to regulate smaller waterways that flow into larger ones. The so-called “Waters of the U.S.” rule became a contentious political issue before being scrapped.


“Yes, we’re concerned about soil runoff. Yes, we’re concerned about water quality issues,” Lundy said. “But when you put out a mandate like that, with what I call a huge difficulty in implementing this kind of practice, that’s really the frustration with these kinds of things.”

The resolution was modeled after a new state law in Minnesota that requires 50-foot buffer strips along lakes, rivers and streams and 16.5-foot buffer strips along ditches.

Kevin Pope, a state soil conservation and water quality committee member from Mason City, said Minnesota farmers he talks to are upset by the law.

“The feeling from farmers is their land was stolen from them with that mandate up there,” Pope said. “I think that’s wrecked their attitude toward voluntary practices somewhere else on their farm. I’ve heard it from every Minnesota farmer I’ve talked to. ... They feel the state overstepped their bounds, and now their attitude toward voluntary conservation has changed.”

State committee member Patti Ruff, of McGregor, countered that voluntary compliance is insufficient. Despite efforts by the state and conservation groups to educate farmers about programs designed to support conservation practices, she said she still sees farmers planting crops right up to the edge of waterways.

“Haven’t we promoted and basically all but mandated buffer strips and practices? ... And there are still farmers out there, I drive every day and see them literally plowing up the dirt right to the edge (of the water),” Ruff said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to get everyone on board unless you mandate it.”

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