Improving Iowa’s soil and water quality will take innovation, collaboration and, quite frankly, more money, according to a panel of conservation experts, researchers and farmers last week at a conference on soil and water conservation policy hosted by Drake University.
"It’s not one organization’s or agency’s responsibility alone," said Clare Lindahl, executive director of the Conservation Districts of Iowa.
She highlighted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which encourages public and private partners to join with farmers on natural resource conservation and wildlife habitat improvement efforts.
One such project in Iowa is the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, coordinated by the city of Cedar Rapids, which received $2 million in USDA funding to work with local conservation partners, farmers and landowners to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to improve water quality, water quantity and soil health in the Cedar River Watershed.
"This is not an agriculture-versus-urban issue," said Roger Wolf, director of programs for the Iowa Soybean Association. "We need urban people to support agriculture. These partnership programs have to work."
Estimates place Iowa’s annual soil erosion at around 5.7 tons per acre, said Rick Cruse, Iowa State University professor. However, that number varies widely depending on the topography of the land and the amount of rainfall in a given year, he pointed out.
The challenge, Cruse said, is finding ways to reduce soil loss on highly vulnerable fields and during extreme rain events that do the most damage.
New technology allows conservation experts to calculate the greatest erosion risks in a farmer’s field and target conservation practices to best protect the soil, said Tom Buman of Agren, a conservation planning business based in Carroll.
Budget and staff cuts at governmental conservation agencies mean private companies will have to play a larger role in water and soil quality improvement efforts, Buman added. Of course, the time, equipment and technology needed to make conservation improvements all come with a cost.
While Iowa has typically received a fair share of government cost-share conservation funding, the amount is "a drop in the bucket as to what we need," Buman said.
Neil Hamilton, director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center, said tougher policies are needed to address Iowa’s soil and water quality challenges. The state has several environmental policies and goals already on the books that either haven’t been enforced or haven’t been met, he said.
"Maybe we don’t need anything new. Maybe we need to go back and look at what we already have," Hamilton said.
Hamilton also encouraged farmers to take the lead on conservation efforts as part of their "fundamental duty" to protect natural resources.
Showing the way
Farmers are indeed taking the lead on many conservation projects to help meet the goals of Iowa’s science-based nutrient reduction strategy, pointed out Wayne Fredericks, a Mitchell County farmer and president of the Iowa Soybean Association. The strategy aims to reduce non-point source nitrogen and phosphorus losses into state waterways.
He described his own participation in the Rock Creek watershed, where a group of farmers helped form partnerships to create a 46-page watershed improvement plan with goals, time lines and cost estimates.
Landowners also have an important role in conservation, said Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company, a farm real estate sales and land management firm. Since about 60 percent of Iowa’s farmland is rented, farmers often don’t have incentives to make long-term investments in conservation practices on ground that they might not be farming the next year, he said.
"How do you align the land owner’s goal with the farmer’s goal? It’s a big issue," said Bruere. "From our perspective, we think the landowner has a huge role to play in sustainability and water quality. They have the most to gain and the most to lose."