Staff Columnist

A year of hitting walls on water quality in Iowa

A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at the Weber farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 20
A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at the Weber farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

By now, we should have known the buffers would be rebuffed.

You might recall a column back in August about elected soil and water conservation commissioners from across Iowa who voted for a resolution in support of a state law prohibiting crop farming within 30 feet of a stream, river or lake while also requiring permanent grass buffer strips to soak up and slow runoff. The resolution was offered by Linn County commissioners.

If endorsed by the state Soil Conservation and Water Quality Committee, the measure could have become part of commissioners’ legislative lobbying agenda. It could have, at least, sparked a conversation.

Instead, last week the state committee, appointed by former Gov. Terry Branstad and Gov. Kim Reynolds, voted down the buffer resolution.

The committee is made up of farmers from six regions, a tree farmer, a “cities and towns” representative and a member tied to mining. Among its members are five Republicans, three Democrats and an independent. The cities and towns member is a former Iowa State University agronomist who also worked for Monsanto.

According to reporting by Erin Murphy in our Des Moines Bureau, opponents raised concerns about how farmers would know what constituted a stream or ditch in need of a buffer. It would be too complicated to implement. The buffer mandate was modeled after a Minnesota law, which one committee member argued is opposed by farmers up north.

Although there is an ongoing debate in Minnesota over whether farmers should receive tax credits or other compensation for buffer lands, the state’s Board of Soil and Water Resources reports 98 percent compliance on parcels adjacent to waters.

But in Iowa, all efforts to reduce the flow of polluted runoff fowling our waterways, carrying away soil and causing flooding issues downstream are strictly voluntary. Anywhere you turn in state government with hopes of making someone do something meaningful about water quality, or even require more robust monitoring to see it voluntary efforts are working, you’ll hit a brick wall.

And 2019 has been a year of hitting walls on water.


In February, the Environmental Protection Commission, also appointed by the governor and dominated by agricultural interests, rejected a petition asking the Department of Natural Resources to set lake pollution standards. But knowing the true scope of pollution in Iowa’s lakes could lead to calls for an expensive clean up, so our environmental protectors took a pass.

In April, the Legislature approved a bill barring groups such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation from using a state revolving loan fund to buy and donate land for conservation uses. It was a loss for water and a victory for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

In June, the DNR said it would not follow a new Environmental Protection Agency standard on when swimmers, especially children, should be warned about microcystin toxins spawned by algae blooms. Iowa stuck with its less stringent standard and objected to the EPA change. So did the Farm Bureau.

In September, we waved goodbye to the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule, which sought to clarify which waterways are subject to Clean Water Act Projections. The rules were demagogued into an early grave by ag interests and politicians who vastly exaggerated their scope and reach for political effect.

Now, the buffers.

Surely 2020 will be better. Maybe, but the wall-builders remain firmly in control.

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