Water quality

DES MOINES — Iowa is making progress on water quality issues, but measuring that progress is difficult and there are some who think it is not fast enough.

Officials taking part in a panel session on water quality at the recent Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting said they are encouraged by the progress being made, and some said farmers do not get enough credit for the things they do. But they added more needs to be done.

“I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” Al Schlafbuch, who farms near Dysart, told panelists “Let’s make something happen.”

He and several other farmers at the session said the state is making progress on no-till practices and cover crops, but that the rate of change by farmers needs to pick up dramatically.

The Iowa legislature adopted an Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aimed at better water quality in 2013. In 2018, it passed SF 512, which established a funding stream and ramped up funding to address water quality. That legislation put $2 million into the effort this year and will put $4 million in next year before it ramps up to $15 million a year.

But Iowa voters in 2010 voted for the establishment of a natural resources and outdoors fund to be created by a 3/8 cent increase in the state sales tax. The vote did not raise the tax but said that if the tax is raised, the first 3/8 cent would go toward such a fund. That would provide a much larger funding stream for water quality and other natural resources issues in the state than SF 512 did.

Lawmakers, however, have never raised the tax and established the fund, and some farm organizations have said they either would not support a tax increase or would like to change the formula now in place should such a fund be established.

The panelists at the Farm Bureau meeting did not address the politics of the funding issue, but instead focused on the present effort and issues such as the movement toward more emphasis on phosphorus and nitrogen rather than simply soil erosion.

But those changes also present challenges, according to Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University. For example, buffer strips along streams certainly help reduce soil erosion, but if a tile line runs under the buffer to the stream it may not do much to reduce nitrate levels in the stream. Creating a saturated buffer might be more useful.

Shawn Richmond, director of environment technology for the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council, said the state has done a good job for many years combatting phosphorus levels in streams but is in recent years starting to look more at nitrogen.

Climate change issues present new challenges to the effort to improve water quality, Helmers said, because it is leading to larger and more intense rainfall events and appears to be leading to wetter springs. Spring rains can be a serious problem where there are no cover crops to protect the soil, he said.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.