Talking Soil, Water Quality

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An open letter to my fellow Mills Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners – on Jan. 22, 2013, I attended the Conservation partnership Day at the Iowa Statehouse. This is a lobbying effort attended by Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Commissioners from across Iowa. It is led by the Conservation District of Iowa (CDI), a non-profit organization which supports the 100 SWCD’s, and by the State Soil Conseration committee, a group of nine voting members, appointed by the Governor, who guide the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Division of Soil Conservation (DSC) on policy, budget, rules and programs.

My message to you: get ready for some shake-ups. Soil health and water quality are the new emphasis. SWCD Commissioners across Iowa will likely soon be called upon to educate both the farming and non-farming communities alike about the new Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and to assist in implementing it. Our old standby focus on soil erosion control is no less important and will, we trust, not be lost in the shuffle of new politics.

The CDI request to Iowa’s legislators was specifically as follows:

$1.25 million to prevent polluted urban runoff;

$1.55 million to close agricultural drainage wells, which are contaminating ground water;

$2 million to reduce Iowa’s impact on the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zone;

$2.75 million to match federal and local dollars for conservation practices;

$3.6 million for outreach and staff necessary to implement conservation practices locally;

$7 million to begin conservation projects from a list that exceeds $15 million in requests (which I believe is the Iowa Financial Incentives – Cost Share program); and $1.89 million for staffing of 14 additional Soil Technicians and 20 State Secretaries (the nuts and bolts of our local offices, where 40 counties now share staff with at least one other county).

We heard discussion of specifics on most of the monetary requests, but I came away unclear about exactly what the funds for the urban runoff and hypoxia requests were to be spent on.

The Legislature’s final budget process will show us exactly what it is willing to do. We certainly hope that the CDI requests are fully funded. We know that demand for the cost-sharing funds, in particular, far exceeds the supply each year. If we are concerned about food security and long-term health of our agriculture, these programs should be at the core of those efforts.

However, lurking in the background is the new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), a plan to dramatically reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waters. The NRS is the culmination of at least two years of collaboration between the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the USDA – Agricultural Research Service, the two Iowa agencies noted above, Iowa State University and other institutions. If you are unaware of it import, I suggest you visit the web site for details www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/.

Iowa’s SWCD’s are the obvious choice for encouraging a voluntary program such as the NRS. We believe this will need to be adequately funded and that it could well complement the federal and state matching funds already administered and overseen by SWCD’s.

Oddly, the CDI leaders were telling the three legislative committees before whom they appeared on Jan. 22 that the drafters of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy had not consulted with SWCD’s very much. So there is potential for a turf battle over funding. That need not happen, particularly if we in the SWCD’s are serious about our job.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy may create more funds for the projects already undertaken by SWCD’s and it may also create broader targets for our work. But it is difficult to see how our job and the job of nutrient reduction in waterways and groundwater can possibly be at odds with one another, if properly implemented. Soil erosion control, soil health and water quality all go hand-in-hand.

Here is my train of thought:

1. Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico will not end, or even begin to improve, without a huge concerted effort to reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus off our midwestern agricultural lands.

2. Our groundwater and surface water bodies can never be cleaned up without the same effort.

3. We need more research and education on how best to accomplish these tasks. It is perhaps harder to grasp just how to clean up our water than it has been to slow soil erosion. Water pollution in general is less apparent and noticeable than is soil erosion. The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is not visible in Iowa. A huge amount of water is hidden from sight and thus out of mind.

4. However, a great deal is known about how to maintain/improve soil health and water quality and practical tools of all sorts are at our fingertips:

cover crops, buffer strips, no-till farming practices, terraces – both newly constructed and re-constructed, grassed waterways, long-term forage rotations, targeted wetlands, watershed protection structures, ponds, wellhead protection, surface water and groundwater testing; stream bank stabilization. This is hardly an exhaustive list. These are the sorts of tasks that SWCD’s can encourage and take the lead on. These are the sorts of actions, which can be implemented while further research goes on.

We encourage all commissioners to inform themselves and become pro-active about implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. We need to be the drivers, rather than the passengers, in this vehicle.

As I discussed matters with land contractors, NRCS personnel and Iowa DSC personnel at the Conservation Day, the topics of soil health and quality popped up repeatedly. Jay Mar, the new head of Iowa’s NRCS, whose background is in range botany, challenges us to dig up the roots in our pastures, look at the length of those roots, ponder how the roots and level of organic matter are related to water-holding capacity. He says we need to concentrate on increasing the water-holding capacity of our various soil types as we adapt to the warming climate (and survive the current drought). This is the same sort of message we see in all sorts of farm publications: try more no-till practices, cover crops, and rotations to increase the organic matter in your soils, on your farm. Pay attention not only to retaining the soil and preventing it from entering the waterways, but also to how swiftly the water either runs off into the streams nearby or passes through the soil and into the groundwater below. Wells, tributaries, creeks, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes must all be monitored and studied more intensively so that we know which fertilizers and chemicals are escaping our farms and lands, and in what quantities.

The experience of watching the legislature in action can of course be discouraging. Some members of the committees we observed were more interested in hearing themselves talk than in stating their positions on the budget requests made by CDI. However, they are empowered with significant responsibilities and the money to be allocated does belong to the people. We suspect the lawmakers’ feet will be held to the fire by the voters, so that the bulk of the requested funds will be provided on an adequate basis.

It is important to recognize that the funding sources for all these basic tasks are multiple: federal, state and county. EQIP, CRP, DSP, Iowa Financial Incentives Cost Share; REAP; CREP, ect. However an one of these programs and sources can be cut, sliced, and diced at any tie, particularly in this era of concern with federal deficit reduction. It is critical to keep lobbying.

A final area of concern which arose frequently at this gathering was that younger soil-moving contractors and younger commissioners are not readily available and/or willing. This is similar to the problem of the increasing average age of Iowa farmers and landowners. We run a serious risk of losing local knowledge and capabilities unless each SWCD can think of means of attracting younger talent for the basic jobs at hand. This dilemma runs far deeper than a lack of funding, of course.

In addition, the nation may face huge BRCS staff cutbacks in the near future, which will have an adverse impact on every project and program with which we are involved. Here again, we run the risk of eliminating a generation of skilled soil and water conservation personnel. This I a problem, which needs to be addressed with our Congress and quickly.

In sum, we see plenty of challenges on the horizon. We really need to be about encouraging very farming practice that will not only put a better public face on grain and livestock farming in general, but also actually leave successor generations a cleaner and more productive state and nation.

Joe Wearin