Maybe you figured you’d never see a group of Iowa elected officials vote to mandate a farm conservation practice. Actually requiring landowners to take basic actions aimed at cleaning up water, controlling runoff and saving soil?
It simply isn’t done.
In Iowa, these sorts of efforts are strictly voluntary and have been for years. Veer into the no man’s land of real regulation and you’re sure to crash into entrenched political power.
But a couple of weeks ago, it happened.
That’s when the Conservation Districts of Iowa met for its annual meeting in Ames. The group is made up of 500 nonpartisan soil and water conservation commissioners elected all across the state. They’re among those folks who seek your vote on the back of election ballots. Maybe you’ve stared at their names, puzzled.
At the meeting, the 200 or so commissioners in attendance voted for a resolution in support of a state law prohibiting crop farming within 30 feet of a stream, while also requiring permanent buffer strips along those streams to soak up and slow runoff. It got 68 percent of the vote.
The resolution, inspired by a similar requirement in Minnesota, was offered by four Linn County soil and water commissioners — Robert Broulik, Laura Krouse, Sue Ellen Hosch and Larry Jons.
“That was a pretty amazing thing,” Broulik told me this past week.
He, his son and son-in-law farm 3,500 acres near Mount Vernon. His farm features an array of conservation practices, including buffers.
“We don’t need people farming right up to the edge of the stream. It’s not a lot to ask to have a little grass along those streams to slow the water down, catch the sediment, just to give a buffer,” Broulik said.
A similar resolution last year failed to pass.
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“It was pretty resoundingly defeated last year. And so we thought it was going to be harder to convince people,” said Krouse, who grows vegetables on a farm near Mount Vernon.
“More floods, more rain,” said Krouse, who also pointed to the election of some new commissioners.
“Maybe commissioners are a little more willing to do something. We’ve relied on the voluntary approach for 70 years. It’s not working in some areas,” Krouse said.
OK, I know. This isn’t the powerful Legislature or the governor taking this political leap. The association will lobby for buffer legislation, but under the Golden Dome of Wisdom, currently managed by GOP Trifecta Inc., its chances are very slim. I don’t think the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation is losing sleep.
John Whitaker, a former lawmaker and association executive director, said the organization’s board still must decide whether the buffer strip effort will be among its top legislative priorities in 2020.
Other competing issues include an effort to reauthorize funding for the Resource Enhancement and Protection, or REAP, program and raising the sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. State funding for commissioners’ work is another issue.
But the surprising vote is not insignificant. For one thing, water could use a win after being largely ignored at the Statehouse in 2019.
And maybe it’s yet another sign that Iowans are ahead of politicians on these issues.
“We got the idea because every time any of us go anywhere, we always come back to the next meeting and say, ‘You can’t believe what I saw. You can’t believe what people are doing.’ So we got fed up enough that we decided to write a resolution,” Krouse said.
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Soil and water conservation commissioners are knee-deep on the front lines of the water quality debate in Iowa. Commissioners, for instance, review landowner applications for cost-share assistance with conservation projects and also craft five-year soil and water plans. They’re local people perhaps better known to the farmers and others involved than Statehouse types.
“They’re the conservation role models,” Whitaker said. “They willingly put themselves out there. They give up their time, freely. So they’ve really got to care about conservation.”
Our GOP Statehouse leaders could use some new role models. They too often tend to gravitate toward folks with large checks and available jets. That’s why issues such as water quality are no match for other priorities, like delivering tax cuts to wealthy Iowans and large businesses.
They’ve ignored the 629,000 or so role models who voted to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010, and the long list of groups lobbying for years to finally fill it. They ignored 73,000-plus role models in Linn County who voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to raise property taxes to pay for conservation projects. Now comes the Conservation Districts of Iowa, sending another clear message to our legislative majority.
Now I’d like to see them actually listen. Sadly, it simply isn’t done.
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