Iowa’s county conservation district commissioners — many of whom are farmers — want the Iowa Legislature to pass a law against planting crops within 30 feet of streams.
The Conservation Districts of Iowa isn’t the first group to push for a buffer law to improve water quality, but it’s the first time a group made up mainly of farmers and retired farmers has advocated for something more stringent than voluntary actions for agricultural producers.
“I think it’s a growing realization what we’re doing isn’t getting us the results we need to have,” said Dennis Carney, a Mason City farmer and president of the Conservation Districts of Iowa. “Some rules might be in order.”
The group, which includes 500 elected soil and water conservation district members, voted at its annual conference in August on a resolution titled “Require Permanent Buffers Strips to Protect Streams.”
Resolution 5, which was passed with a supermajority, says Conservation Districts of Iowa should support legislation similar to Minnesota’s buffer law, which requires buffer strips or comparable conservation practices.
“It just doesn’t make sense to farm up to a river or drainage ditch,” said Carney, who farms corn and soybeans near Charles City. “I drive around the state and sometimes just cringe. You see cornstalks falling into the creeks.”
Linn County raises resolution
The resolution came from the Linn Soil and Water Conservation District, whose five members unanimously supported the proposal, said Laura Krouse, who runs Abbe Hills Farm near Mount Vernon and who has served as a commissioner since 1992.
“Every farmer would agree farming up to the stream is a bad practice,” Krouse said. “Probably where we disagree is whether we should be required to solve it.”
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Resolution 5 is intended to help Iowa meets the goals of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash by 45 percent by 2035 the nitrate and phosphorus flowing from agriculture and industry into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Buffers of perennials also help keep Iowa soil here in Iowa.
Taking buffer space out of corn production isn’t without a cost to farmers, Krouse said, but there are other ways to make money from that land. Hay, perennial crops and fruit or nut trees could be planted in the buffer strips, she said. The state and federal government also provides subsidies for perennial buffers.
“It doesn’t seem like such a huge ask,” she said.
Linn County commissioners proposed a similar resolution at the 2018 state conference but it failed. Krouse isn’t sure what swayed members this time, but she notes severe flooding of the Missouri River last spring likely caused major erosion and crop losses in western Iowa.
Iowa Ag leader opposes idea
Resolutions passed by the Conservation Districts of Iowa go to the State Soil Conservation & Water Quality Committee, a nine-member group appointed by the governor, which may vote on resolutions it also wants to support. This group includes six farmers from different regions and one member each to represent cities, mining and tree farming.
So far, the committee hasn’t put Resolution 5 on an agenda, but it may be discussed Dec. 5 in Des Moines. If state committee members want to advance the proposal, they will share their recommendation with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig.
Naig told The Gazette this week he opposes a buffer strip requirement.
“This calls for regulation, a requirement for buffers, and that’s not the approach we’re taking here,” he said Thursday. “It’s counter to our philosophy.”
Naig said the Conservation Districts of Iowa vote isn’t necessarily representative of what Iowa farmers want, despite its farm-heavy membership.
“I don’t know that you can make that connection,” he said.
Naig wants to provide more education so farmers and landowners will voluntarily choose to install buffers, wetlands or bioreactors.
“There’s no doubt buffer strips are a great conservation practice. They are in the (Nutrient Reduction) strategy and a practice we have a long history of implementing in the state. I just don’t think the regulatory approach is the right way to go.”
Vote ‘changed the landscape’
State lawmakers also could propose buffer strip legislation — something Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, did last year. Senate File 491 asked the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council to make a recommendation about how to do a pilot program for establishing riparian buffers, but the bill did not gain approval in 2019.
Hogg said this week he plans to push the bill again in 2020.
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“That CDI resolution changed the landscape on the issue,” he said. “It creates a lot of possibilities.”
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Here’s what the buffer strip resolution says
The Conservation Districts of Iowa, a group that includes 500 elected soil and water conservation district members, voted at its annual conference this fall in favor of this resolution:
TITLE: Require Permanent Buffer Strips to Protect Streams
STATEMENT: Some farmers plant crops up to the edges of streams, even though nearly every Iowan can understand that water quality would benefit if stream banks were protected. Permanent vegetation along streams reduces the risk of the bank collapsing, and vigorous plant roots filter dissolved nitrogen as water seeps downhill toward the stream. Thick plant growth also slows the flow of excess runoff across the surface, allowing suspended soil particles to be deposited on land rather than in the bottom of the stream. Even though a few streams are protected every year with the voluntary installation of buffer strips, many more miles of stream edges become vulnerable following brush and timber clearing. To meet the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (Iowa’s policy for dramatically improving our surface water quality) we should protect our stream banks from further degradation.
ACTION: The Conservation Districts of Iowa should work with the State Soil Conservation & Water Quality Commission, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University, and the Iowa Legislature to develop, introduce, and lobby for legislation similar to Minnesota’s buffer law. This legislation prohibits crop farming within 30 feet of a stream and would require permanent buffer strips to be installed to protect water quality.
SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION: Permanent buffers can be planted with hay for livestock, native or non-native grasses and forbs or trees and shrubs. Thirty-foot buffer strips along thousands of miles of streams will not be without cost to landowners and farmers. But local, state and federal government programs that share costs and encourage effective practices already exist or can be developed, and perennial strips could be managed to produce farm income.