Flood reduction and clean water solutions are not magic

UPDATE: The Iowa House approved an amended version of Senate File 548 on a mostly party-line 52 to 44 vote. The Senate approved the bill by 33 votes to 17. Governor Kim Reynolds signed the bill on May 9.

Angelisa Belden is communications and development director for the Iowa Environmental Council. -promoted by Laura Belin

Iowans are dealing with the aftermath of receding flood waters this week. Heart-wrenching stories have emerged about returning to decimated homes, topsoil-choked streams headed for the Gulf of Mexico, and the sad task of removing lifeless bodies of young calves who couldn’t withstand the deluge.

Commentators and elected officials are missing the point – or at least failing to bring proper attention to – the obvious and science-based solution to not only water quantity but water quality crises facing our state. We must adopt policy and pass laws that slow down the water running off of our farm fields. That task starts with the federal Farm Bill but ends here at home with efforts to replace Iowa’s lax environmental rules with meaningful protections for land and water.

Senate File 548, the bill that would restrict the use of loans from the State Revolving Fund to purchase land for water quality projects, is a step in the wrong direction.

There is no magical spell or wand that will restore Iowa’s beautiful landscape and clean water. We all know what it will take; our elected officials simply lack the intestinal fortitude to make it happen. Scientific research tells us that our soil loss woes, fast-moving damaging flood waters, and battle to keep our drinking water sources safe are tied to several factors, but an important one is the lack of enough conservation practices that trap soil and slow water on the landscape. Instead we till fencerow to fencerow, leave the topsoil bare much of the year, and then look elsewhere for solutions.

Iowa is the leading contributor to the nitrogen load to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone. The leading contributor. And those loads are not less than they were 10 years ago — they are more. That’s not okay, and we can do better. We must tie government incentives to mandatory, strategically-placed conservation practices. We must revamp agricultural tile drainage law after 100 years and bring it in line with 21st century values of technology, public health, habitat and recreation access. Our Environmental Protection Commission must direct the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to properly enforce the Clean Water Act.

Any law or policy that makes it harder, not easier, to take land out of production that could instead serve to slow down our water is not based on science. Doing so turns a deaf ear to Iowans in rural and urban areas who seek to stop damaging flooding, continued pollution of our waters, and the loss of natural landscapes that encourage young people to make Iowa home.

Originally known as Senate Study Bill 1221, Senate File 548 passed out of the Iowa Senate last month on a mostly party-line vote. (Democratic Senator Kevin Kinney and 31 Republicans supported the bill, Republican Brad Zaun and sixteen Democrats voted against it.) The Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association lobbied for its passage, while numerous environmental groups and government entities opposed it.

The bill was initially assigned to the Iowa House Natural Resources Committee, but that committee’s leader, Republican Representative Rob Bacon, did not support the concept. So two days later, the chamber’s GOP leaders sent the bill to the House Agriculture Committee.

To no one’s surprise, the reassignment kept the conversation focused on how the use of the State Revolving Fund supposedly gives a buyer an unfair advantage over young or new farmers. The House Agriculture Committee approved the bill on April 3 along party lines, twelve votes to nine.

During the committee hearing, someone claimed a vote against Senate File 548 was “a vote against family farms.” However, this bill does little to address real barriers for new farmers. Ir immediately shuts down the conversation about an effective, targeted solution that works to protect Iowa’s property owners from flooding and polluted drinking and recreational waters.

Having survived the legislature’s second “funnel,” this bill is eligible for a vote on the House floor. The Iowa Environmental Council continues to call on legislators to oppose Senate File 548 and instead look for bold, workable solutions to our water crises that are based on science, reason, and compassion.

Top image: Iowa House Agriculture Committee meets on April 3. Photo by Angelisa Belden, used with permission.

  • Kicking the can as far down the road as politically possible...

    …continues to be the Iowa approach to water problems. And many Iowa voters apparently support that, for which future Iowans will not thank them.

    The ridiculous bill that is well-explained above is one example. The bill basically amounts to the Iowa Farm Bureau sticking out its tongue at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for no valid reason. The land offered by willing sellers to the Foundation is almost always low-quality farmland that should not be rowcropped. Turning Farm Bureau spite into Iowa law, at the expense of water quality, would demonstrate yet again that the IFB still runs this state.

    The Iowans who deeply know and care about water issues, rather than caring most about agriculture’s public image, are pointing out as loudly as they safely can (some are in public agencies and have to be very careful) that our current water policies and approaches are not working. Emphasis on not.

    The irony is that the only way Iowa’s voluntary approach to farm pollution would have a chance of being effective (and the odds are against it ever being effective) would be if there were adequate funding, systematic monitoring, and standards, benchmarks, and deadlines. And guess which groups are working against all of the above.

    And as a final note, it’s time to have a serious state discussion about just what we mean by “family farms.” I know of farm operations that consist of parents and their adult children who farm thousands of acres and are doing only the minimal conservation needed to qualify for crop insurance subsidies. They support conservative organizations and officials who fight off any accountability for farm pollution. In return, they get generous subsidies, a variety of tax breaks, and endless public praise for “feeding the world.” If those are Iowa’s “family farms,” the sooner they are either forced to become sustainable or are replaced by the farmers who know what “sustainable” means, the better.

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