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Permitting delays holding up farmers’ conservation efforts

Bob Ausberger and his wife, Joyce, have always worked to be good stewards of the land they farm in Greene County near Jefferson.

Farming with their son, David, the Ausbergers have no-till farm­ed for 30 years, built terraces, planted cover crops and installed buffer strips to reduce soil loss and improve water quality. They have enrolled land in the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program to help protect the environment. They have also worked with other farmers in their township to promote more community-wide conservation and water quality efforts.

The conservation structures on the Ausbergers’ farm were built by their nephew, Kurt Oathout, who also farms family and rented land in the area.

Now the Ausbergers want to go a step further in their conservation efforts by building retention basins and other structures to slow the water flow in a three-quarter-mile-long ditch on their land that runs from a drainage district outlet into Buttrick Creek, and ultimately reaches the North Raccoon River.

In the Ausbergers’ plan, the sediment basins would catch the water and release it slowly, reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the stormwater. Then the stormwater would go through a bioreactor, a saturated buffer strip or wetland to further reduce nutrients.

Improving water quality

The structures, the farmer be­­lieves, would control flooding, improve water quality and improve the wildlife habitat. In addition, the slower water flow helps keep the sidewalls of the ditch intact, preventing more sediment from ending up in the ditch and ultimately, the creek, he said.

But like a lot of farmers in Iowa, the Ausbergers’ conservation plans have been delayed by bureaucratic red tape as government agencies try to determine just what agencies have to approve plans, and which permits farmers need. "It seems like it should be pretty simple, but it seems to get complicated pretty fast with the different agencies," said Bob Ausberger, 75.

The Ausbergers’ neighbor, Mike Bravard, went to the county office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) more than a year ago to obtain planning assistance on the conservation project. But he was informed that before the NRCS office could begin to do any planning work, he would have to determine whether the project required a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Rock Island, Ill.

Filing out paperwork

Bob Ausberger has now filled out the paperwork required by the Corps and is waiting for a reply to determine whether or not the project will need a permit. But he worries that the jurisdictional determination process and then the permitting process, even if he is successful, will delay the project into 2015 or beyond.

"I’d like to get going on this soon because I think it would do a lot of good. But right now it’s hard to say how long it will be before we get started," Ausberger said.

Timing is important, Ausberger said, because construction on the conservation structures is limited by frozen ground during the winter and crops during the growing season.

The Greene County Farm Bur­­eau members are not alone in the waiting game, said Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. In late 2013, the Corps began requiring reviews of many routine conservation projects in Iowa, such as NRCS-designed ponds, grade stabilization structures and larger waterways, to determine if farmers need a Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Last fall, the Corps began citing CWA section 404 (f) (2) "recapture" provisions as the reason for needing the reviews. Those provisions require permits when a nearby area is brought in as a new use causing a discharge of dredged or fill material into a navigable water, where the reach, flow or circulation of navigable waters may be impaired or reduced.

Many farmers waiting

Robinson said questions over the need for permits means that as many as 300 or more Iowa farmers, like Ausberger, are waiting through longer review periods so far this year to determine if they need permits for conservation projects. Last year, there were less than 30 such extra reviews.

The NRCS, the Corps and other agencies say they are meeting this spring to try to find ways to reduce the number of jurisdictional determinations and permits that are needed for routine conservation projects. However, concerns are growing about the long-term role for the Corps in what has traditionally been an ag conservation resource agency responsibility.

Complicating the issue is a recent proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps that greatly expands the definition of waters regulated by the federal government. There are serious questions over whether the proposal preserves CWA exemptions and exclusions for agricultural conservation practices, because the 371-page rule contains a number of troubling new definitions that provide considerable leeway for the agencies to exercise permitting authority over newly defined waters of the U.S. that have long been considered to be farmland, said Robinson.

"It adds to the confusion about whether farmers will need a federal permit to install certain conservation practices already exempted by the Clean Water Act, which is administered by the EPA, because they may take place in or near a newly regulated water or wetland," said Robinson.

Frustrating delays

The delays, which also stem from local authorities, can be frustrating, Ausberger admits. "I really believe that farmers need to step up for the state’s nutrient reduction strategy, and I think most people want to do that," he said. "But sometimes when you try to do that, life just gets more complicated. There are probably thousands of small ditches like this around Iowa and the Midwest, and we could do a lot of good with this type of project on them."

Joyce Ausberger added: "I really think that this project will be a win both ways, for us and the environment, and I hope we can get it done soon. The environment needs to be protected, and the water needs to be cleaner, and this would help."

To learn more on this issue, visit ditchtherule.fb.org.



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