Monday, September 16, 2019

Soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) are local government units established under state law to help implement natural resource management programs at the local level. There are 100 of these districts in Iowa (one in every county; Pottawatomie County has two) and they are led by a 5-member elected panel of commissioners. SWCDs are staffed by USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Iowa Department of Agricultural and Land Stewardship (IDALS) professionals, as well as watershed project coordinators. In my county (Johnson) there is a District Conservationist, Conservation Assistant, Soil Conservationist, Soil Technician, Urban Conservationist, and Watershed Coordinator on staff. (I'm told changes are coming to this organizational structure.)

These offices are the focal point and information centers for farm and urban conservation. Staff salaries are paid through the agencies and grants, while the district and commissioners have nominal budgets of $2000 per year or so to conduct business. The districts have taxing authority in Iowa, although to my knowledge, that option has never been exercised. Commissioners help prioritize conservation policies and increase local awareness of natural resource concerns and opportunities. The commissioners come from all walks of life, but many are farmers, especially in the rural counties. They are people that donate time and energy for the betterment of Iowa’s air, soil and water.

Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI) is a statewide association of the 500 elected commissioners. Each year, CDI meets to discuss issues important to soil and water improvement. They propose and vote on resolutions that are then forwarded to the state soil committee at IDALS. If the state soil committee is in agreement with a resolution, a process begins whereby the resolution may become state policy or law if the legislature and governor agree.

This year, CDI passed a resolution (see inset) with a super majority to require 30’ buffer strips on either side of Iowa streams, similar to a law passed a few years ago in Minnesota requiring 50’ buffers.

buffer resolution

We have known for a long, long time that stream buffers are one of the most logical and fundamental of all conservation practices. If you’re reading this, however, I’m sure you’ve seen crops planted right up to the stream edge and perhaps even corn sloughing off into the stream. There are glaring examples along I-80 between Des Moines and Iowa City.

In response to the soldiers at CDI, the generals at IDALS issued a statement that included this: “…incentive-based approaches to delivering conservation practices that are tailored to the landscape - instead of mandatory regulations - are the best way to achieve our state's water quality goals."

Is this objectively true? There is plenty of evidence that says otherwise.

Des Moines River with falling corn

The ag industry’s main claim to environmental improvement relates to reductions in soil erosion. While it is easy to make the case that it is still too high, it’s undeniable that improvements have occurred in Iowa, especially since 1985. Hmm. What happened in 1985?

As Silvia has written previously in this space (link), the 1985 Federal Farm Bill included a provision for “conservation compliance.” If farmers were cropping highly erodible land, they were required to adopt certain soil retention practices if they wanted to participate in commodity programs (e.g., be eligible for public assistance through price supports and now, crop insurance). This had an immediate positive effect on water quality.

The industry is also touting its achievements in reducing phosphorus pollution. Phosphorus loads very likely have declined, although the magnitude of the claim at the linked article is not borne out in actual water quality data. (I will talk about that in a future post, I’m waiting for a paper to get accepted for publication). But, let’s celebrate the improvement. Why have phosphorus loads gone down? Well, phosphorus attaches tenaciously to soil particles and when you mandate soil conservation in Farm Bill programs (e.g. 1985 Farm Bill conservation compliance) you also reduce phosphorus loss.

Raccoon River sediment trend

And let’s look at Monarch butterfly preservation efforts. It must be said that the industry (and others) have responded forcefully to the species’ decline these past few years, and there are signs that efforts are working. I applaud these efforts. Of course, a cynic might also add that the industry was looking skyward for a falling anvil with “ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT” stamped on the bottom.  That regulation can float like a butterfly AND sting like a bee, in Muhammad Ali fashion, by restricting activities on private lands.

I have to wonder, where were all the Monarch-come-lately cheerleaders when we were spraying, mowing and plowing ditches into corn-soybean oblivion over the past 40 years, something virtually every conservationist knew was horrible? Heaven forbid the industry would have supported a rule or a regulation or even a mild suggestion of “DON’T DO THIS.”

Better to wait for the anvil, I guess.

Back to the 30’ buffer proposal. Would it improve water quality? Yes it would, and I know of no person that would say otherwise. Would it cost some farmers some money? Again, yes it would, at least without easement or set aside payments. By my estimates about 1% of Iowa farmland would fall into the 30’ category, but a fair amount of that is already unfarmed and buffered.

What is maddening here for me is that our institutions can’t bring themselves to say that some practices are disproportionately destructive to streams and the environment and that they should be restricted or banned. Rather, the industry prefers to obstruct common sense laws, but they will be more than happy to take credit for the environmental benefits once the obstruction is overcome.

I’ve always wondered if the industry opposes environmental laws precisely because they know they will work, and fear this will invite all sorts of future shenanigans from the lunatics that want cleaner water.

I’d like to find a way out of this by mentioning a recent article in the Washington Post. The thrust of that article is the $30 billion relief package for farmers affected by the ongoing trade disputes, which includes about everybody farming in Iowa. The article stated that “The bailout was created by the Trump administration as a way to try to calm outrage from farmers who complained they were caught in the middle of the White House’s trade war with China. In an attempt to pacify farmers, the Agriculture Department created an expansive new program without precedent.”

So yes, I get that farmers are outraged that their markets have been disrupted, if not out-right destroyed. So we’re going to pay them for that. Ok. We are also going to pay them to help insure their crops against weather calamities and price declines. Ok. We are also going to politely dangle more money in front of them (incentive-based approaches, after all) in the hope they will not do profoundly unwise things like plowing and planting up to the edge of the stream. Whew. Does anybody get dizzy riding this merry-go-round, and does the public ever get to have any expectations when it comes to water quality?

Farmers shouldn’t be the only ones with the right to get outraged. I’m outraged that the water quality of Iowa streams has been substandard my entire life. I’m outraged that the Iowa and Cedar Rivers stink.  I’m outraged that we help kill off part of an ocean. I'm outraged that people from India tell me our rivers look bad. I’m outraged that the water supply for our state’s largest city has been impaired for half of a century.

And yes, I’m outraged that the industry makes society worship the cult of “no regulation” when it comes to the water resources that belong to us all.

If you want better water, it’s their way or the highway.