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Water quality: Is it a question of … funding?

By Staff | Jun 11, 2016

David Osterberg, a researcher with the Iowa Policy Project, makes his opening statement Friday afternoon during a Water Quality Forum at Iowa Central Community College. At left, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey listens.

FORT?DODGE – If Iowa farmers don’t want to face additional lawsuits over water quality – or even direct regulation from the EPA – the state must invest the funds needed to clean up its water as quickly as possible.

That’s the position of Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, founder of the Engage Iowa think tank, and one of six featured speakers at a panel discussion on water quality in Iowa held June 3 at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge.

The panel featured a wide range of ideas and viewpoints. Speakers included a representative of the Des Moines Water Works and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

Des Moines Water Works sued drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties in early 2015, alleging they were the source of excessive nitrates costing the utility thousands to remove from the water.

While the suit was discussed Friday, the focus was on the overall problem of nitrate, phosphorus and other pollution, and how cut it back.

Ron Corbett, Cedar Rapids Mayor and founder of Engage Iowa, makes his opening remarks during a Water Quality Forum Friday afternoon at Iowa Central Community College. At left, Jennifer Kelly, with the Des Moines Waterworks, and John Lawrence, right, with Iowa State University, listen.

Corbett said the Des Moines-based utility turned to the courts for relief because not enough was being done through the legislature.

“It is that lack of progress on water quality that has opened the door to lawsuits. There’s just one large one now, but I believe there will be more,” he said. “That lack of progress has also opened the door to the EPA coming in and regulating farmers and farm fields.”

That lack of progress is because of a lack of funds, Corbett said.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy created in 2013 contains great ideas, but farmers don’t always have the money to implement them themselves, and state funds can be lacking, he said.

The state should fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which was created by a constitutional amendment passed by a large margin of Iowa voters. That measure said the next 3/8 of a cent in an increase in sales tax would go to the trust fund.

Steve Hoesel, of Fort Dodge, listens to the opening remarks by the panel at a Water Quality Forum held Friday at Iowa Central Community College.

“Voters spoke overwhelmingly to support environmental issues,” Corbett said.

But the trust fund was never funded, he said.

Corbett said philanthropic giving should be sought from the private sector, as well as public funding and willing participation from landowners.

The panel seemed to be in agreement that money should be put in the fund.

“That was a big vote,” said David Osterberg, founder and researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. “But nothing’s gone in.”

But money alone won’t solve the problem. Osterberg said too many farmers will refuse to engage in needed environmental practices, as long as participation isn’t required.

“There has been some great progress, and there are some great farmers. I may be looking at them today,” Osterberg said to the audience of about 50. “But is every single one trying to do something to make water quality better?”

“I propose you pick two” of the many strategies suggested by the NRS, Osterberg said. “I don’t care what you do, but you have to do something.”

He said a full 50 percent of farmers said they hadn’t spent one penny on conservation in the last ten years, in a 2007 poll by Iowa State University.

Jennifer Terry, Environmental Advocacy Leader at DMWW, agreed.

“You can’t throw any more money at this problem without requiring behavior change,” Terry said.

Problems with water quality have been known for 30 years, Terry said. An article from 1992, when the Water Works first began treating water for nitrates, predicted that nitrates would never be an issue again. It’s time to start making changes, not just talking about change.

“It’s not a one size fits all approach, but everybody needs to be doing something. If we throw more money at the Raccoon River Watershed without mandatory participation, we are going to have this same panel in 30 years,” she said.

Money can’t just be spent anywhere in the state; it needs to be targeted at specific hotspots, and farmers in those hotspots need to cooperate, she said.

Northey said there have been “dramatic changes in conservation practices” over the last generation of farmers, and major improvements in erosion and productivity.

“There has not been a lot of focus on nitrates until the last few years,” he said.

Northey said further solutions should be found by engaging with farmers, not through regulatory requirements.

“Innovation is key,” he said.

Bill Horen, a farmer from near Rockwell City, explained how much farming has changed since he began 41 years ago.

When farmers started using GPS, “that changed the world,” Horen said.

Now he and his brother farm 4,000 acres, and split that up into 4-acre parcels – as if they were farming 1,000 four-acre fields, he said. Each “field” is independently tested for what kind of fertilizer it needs and how much, and how much it can be expected to yield.

“Fertilizer is expensive,” Horen said. “You want to be efficient. You don’t want to waste fertilizer. And you don’t want to have fertilizer out there that’s harming the environment.”

“We have to preserve our soil for the future of the world, to feed the nine billion people that are coming,” he added.

Dr. John Lawrence, of ISU, coordinated the team which originally developed parts of the NRS. He said education of farmers and advocacy is important.

He said before changes will be seen in the water, changes must be made on land-in land turning back to pasture, use of cover crops, Conservation Reserve Program land, and bioreactors. And before the land will change, people have to change their attitudes, to understand how important conservation is.

“If we don’t see the needle move on some of these other goals, why do we think the water will change?” Lawrence said.

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