Comments on the governor's Invest in Iowa Act

Polk County Soil and Water Commissioner John Norwood adapted comments he sent to members of the Iowa Senate assigned to the subcommittee on Senate Study Bill 3116. That legislation incorporates Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposed tax changes, including raising the sales tax to fund some natural resources projects and programs that benefit farmers. -promoted by Laura Belin

Dear Senators,

As a Soil and Water Commissioner representing the 500,000 +/- residents of Polk County, I have been working hard over the past year to study, strategize and communicate how we can begin to make an impact in cleaning up Iowa’s Waters, conserving our precious soils and reinvigorating our rural economies.


There are basically three things we should be doing. The first, is akin to a long-term, large public works project involving the modernization of our 3,700 drainage districts, built largely with farm profits over the past 100 years, to perform a variety of water management functions in addition to drainage. This includes water filtration, flood detention, aquifer recharge, irrigation, and wildlife and buffer habitat for pollinators and beneficial predator bugs. 

We would be prudent to take a systems approach to doing this efficiently vs. the current farm-by-farm, wetland-by-wetland approach. This starts with a drainage district sitting down with landowners and laying out a new vision for modernization while we also identify the funding sources for the improvements. 

We start with the drainage districts where we can have the biggest bang for the buck, and we use a collective, voluntary, relationship and finance driven process. We don’t have engineers and scientists or government bureaucrats leading the sales and marketing. The science is used to inform and the engineers helps us design and build what farmers agree to do that meet our criteria and objectives. Governmental entities make sure the money has been properly spent and the construction meets state and federal standards.


The second leg of the stool is a team-based, targeted approach to rebuilding soil health that has been degraded over the past 70 years by a set of farm policies that have favored productivity over profitability, crop concentration over diversification, and so forth. We need to create a set of new policies and practices that aligns and incentives farmers to pay attention to soil health, build organic content and water holding capacity, which will make soils more responsive and resilient to heavy rain fall. 

We need a much more proactive targeted approach in how we invent farmer groups to accelerate cover crops, but we also need strategies for the reintroduction of livestock and pasture in a way that can build soil health and diversify farm income.  Rotational grazing strategies where not every landowner with pasture has to own animals. The animals can be placed on the land with the creation of markets, and we know livestock on the land plays a critical role in building soil health.


The third leg of the stool is based on creating a new vision for Iowa agriculture that is focused on a new GRS diversification strategy. GRS stands for Grow, Raise, and Service. 

The electric car is coming fast and it will in one lifetime drive the internal combustion engine to the museum. What will we use our 23 million acres of corn and bean ground to grow if we don’t need ethanol and biodiesel as a fuel source? 

We are in need of a new set of state and federal policies that support a diversification strategy at the farm level, that builds resiliency by delivering high quality and differentiated food products and environmental services in addition to a base of traditional crops. We need a new farm bill with changes to our crop insurance program that has other objectives beyond maximizing production which leads to unintended consequences such as the over application of fertilizer and the conversion of marginal lands that are more productive in GRS functions other than producing low value commodity products that are in oversupply.


Where does Invest in Iowa Funding come in? Like our road infrastructure, which is critical to supporting our agricultural economy, we need a dedicated funding pot to help with this transformation. 

One pot of money should be focused on upgrading our drainage infrastructure, to the tune of $50-$100 million per year, just as we support road construction and maintenance with dedicated funding. Take Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (breakpoint) wetlands, for example, as the kind of heavy green infrastructure we need to be building to support our water management just as we have roads to get farm inputs and outputs to market. 

We have identified 1,400 sites statewide. How many have we built over the past fifteen years? About 90, or six to nine per year, though with the new Senate File 512 money [a water quality bill enacted in 2018] I’m told we now have 45 in process. We should be building 100 per year using a systems approach that extends to how we sell, market, design and build using tactics that support collective action. Not building one here and one there at high unit cost. 

Fifty million to $100 million annually sounds like a lot until you place it in context. It’s small in comparison to the dollars we spend to support our roads ($1.5 billion for the Des Moines metro alone over the next decade, I’m told by one Polk County Supervisor) and the tens of billions we already have invested in our drainage infrastructure to support our 23 million acre “machine.” My guess is we have more than $100 billion invested in our drainage districts. Modernization is going to take some real money.


In closing, here’s the big picture. Rural and Urban Iowa are like Yin and Yang. Each needs the other to be successful. 

These funds I’m talking about will be a critical investment for rural Iowa with the lion’s share of sales tax funding coming from our urban centers. Rural Iowa should have new opportunities to grow and diversify their ag and non-ag economies to do new things not even yet envisioned. 

We need to get out of the commodity loser’s game. No one wins following that model, except for the companies supplying the inputs, selling the equipment, and benefiting from the low cost commodities.

If we want rural Iowa to grow, if we want clean water, clean air, and healthy soil, we need a new path forward. A new vision focused on profitability over production, diversification over concentration. This is one step forward in that direction.

I would be happy to speak in more detail with you on any of the ideas raised in this memo. You can also access a presentation I gave at Drake University on the topic here.

Top image: Remix of the traditional Chinese Yin-Yang symbol using the Earth and the Sky, created by “Donkey Hotey” and available via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • I like many of the ideas in this essay

    A little of it is confusing, however.  And then there’s drainage, the perpetual quagmire.

    First, where would the money for the drainage changes come from? The IWILL part of the Governor’s proposal is already controversial because compared to the original formula, Reynolds would give a much bigger percentage to private farmland conservation while cutting the percentages for outdoor recreation, wildlife, trails, etc.

    If this essay is proposing that part of the farm conservation funding be used for wetlands, I agree, and that would probably happen anyway. Or would the money come from somewhere else? Not the rest of the formula, I hope and assume.

    Second, drainage districts (DDs) are very different than roads. Roads are publicly owned systems that are open to everyone, and everyone benefits. Those who don’t drive or ride on the roads benefit from the transportation of goods.

    But DDs are private systems on private land that make money for private individuals. There’s a good reason why some farmers who never find money to put in needed conservation, like stream buffers, still find money to put in new drainage tile.

    Yes, Iowa’s DDs could be improved to be less awful for water quality and better for the environment. But there’s little apparent push from farmers for that, from what I hear. (And see at DD meetings.) And one previous Iowa DD plan, officially described as DD upgrades to help the environment, was also described by a cynical observer as a great way to get taxpayers to pony up so farmers would have the financial benefits of better drainage without having to spend so much of their own money.

    And the benefits listed in the essay would help to solve problems that were partly caused by farm drainage in the first place.  I do agree that public money should help solve drainage problems, largely because we’re all contributing to climate-change rain increases. But how much the public should pay, compared to how much farmers and landowners should pay, isn’t a simple question.

    As for wetlands, I attended a meeting last year about a new several-wetland project at which we learned that the amounts of land acquired for the wetlands would essentially be the smallest possible amounts that would still allow the wetlands to remove some nutrient pollution.  If that is our basic approach, we will get the crappy wetlands we deserve.   

  • Response to Prairie Fan

    Good observations, Prairie Fan.

    I see a portion of the sales tax money going for improvements to the drainage district (DD) that deliver PUBLIC BENEFITS including improving water quality, such as by installing breakpoint and tile zone wetlands that can filter nitrogens and pathogens from tiling and surface flow, and provide habitat and flood storage.

    Rough numbers, of the 23 million acres that we farm to corn and beans, AgSolver estimates about 2.5 million acres are not profitable. I could see 250,000-500,000 acres being converted to wetland, targeted CRP and targeted 50 and 100 year flood storage, a good portion of which could be re-engineered to tie into our DD infrastructure, as well as the tiling that is not part of a state chartered DD.

    Another chunk of that land is likely highly erodible land that should be converted back to pasture or other more productive uses. It turns out in Polk County, we have more acreage now in row crop than we did in 1950. How did that happen? We converted pasture and other marginal lands to row crops. We need to begin to do the opposite.

    Some of those wetlands might be publicly owned by county parks districts as is the case in Floyd County. In fact, as we grow the base of wetland acres, it might make sense for County Parks departments to maintain these wetland systems (whether underlying fee is public or private) vs. having each farmer try and be an expert. I could see a series of contracts where the County Parks District is the provider of choice for those who want to outsource maintenance as we do with 50% of our row crop production.

    While it is true public roads are open to the public, the vast majority of county roads are used by a small portion of people, and usually for the benefit of landowners needing access to their land — inputs in and crops out. We all recognize the importance of roads and we are willing to take land out of production to build and maintain roads. We also have built a road network using systems thinking and we don’t expect each landowner to design and maintain there own section of road.

    These roads and bridges are typically maintained by user fees (gas tax) and I could see a similar approach for drainage districts where over time we broaden the tax on the production and distribution of anhydrous to all users or conveyors of nitrogen.and place those monies in a dedicated fund that mitigates nitrogen and other contaminants. We could have one big fund, or a county-by-county fund so money that is collected is spent locally, or a combination.

    Buy a bag of fertilizer at Lowe’s and you contribute to the fund. Add some tiling, the sales tax revenue collected on the tiling goes into the fund. Operate a confinement and the volume of manure is assessed a fee every year and that goes into the fund. The improvement of the DD in terms of drainage capacity (bigger pipes), well that function should probably be paid for by the current system of assessments. The expansion of the fertilizer user fee could be used to underwrite improvements that provide a range of local or downstream public benefits.

    You’re right at the present, most DD don’t want to do improvements that cost money and don’t improve profitability (which describes most of these PUBLIC BENEFITS we want). So, we need to align the financial incentives in such a way that these DD district improvement opportunities can be a “good news” opportunity vs. a bad news letter in the mail.

    If we can align the incentives and approach districts as a system and get collective buy-in, such as making decisions where the wetland systems can go collectively, we may begin to discover there are new design solutions that don’t entail just sending all the water downstream but distributing it and holding as much of it as possible within the DD for aquifer and groundwater recharge, irrigation, etc. Of course, that may work in certain areas and not others.

    As we re-align an array of public subsidies to produce and optimize new outputs we desire beyond commodity crop production, I’m hopeful we will begin to think about the “highest and best use” for each acre. It’s a fundamental concept we use in real estate and land use planning, and one that could be adapted for our agricultural lands but not without a good deal of discussion, learning and some course corrections, I’m sure. The important point to me is we need to get started in a serious way. We need to have a vision for where we want to go. And a series of strategies for how we will get from A to B. We have a big job ahead.

    • Thanks, John

      I do think the idea of using public money to help make farm drainage systems less harmful to the landscape is a good one, if the technical policies are sound and well carried out. However, if public money is going to be invested, the public needs meaningful input on how that money would be used.

      Conservationists were deliberately kept out of the room when the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was developed, while farm groups were invited in. The result is a document that has good science and information, but is not, by any definition, a strategy. It should be called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Daydream. Any plan to use public money to improve drainage systems needs to be developed in a better way.

      And I am still wondering what is meant by “a portion of the sales tax money.” What portion? From where? That question is not nit-picking. The proposed formulas for the use of Iowa’s proposed new sales tax money are the subjects of major debate and negotiation at the Statehouse. The drainage work money would need to be taken from the percentage of the sales tax money already designated for farm conservation. If not, it would face major opposition from both conservationists and mental-health advocates.

      I’ll also say something that perhaps does not belong in a political column, but it needs to be said. The best restored wetlands in the Midwest are largely being created and maintained by people who know and care about wetlands and find them exciting, beautiful, and fascinating. The best restored wetlands reflect human love and caring.

      What kinds of hundreds of wetlands would we be creating in Iowa? Would they reflect human love and caring? I know people who work with women farmland owners who are interested in doing conservation on their land. The facilitators are bringing out and encouraging the fundamental feelings and beliefs that have always motivated humans to do good things that are not necessarily profitable — love for children and grandchildren, loyalty to heritage, concern for the future, appreciation of beauty, the desire to live and act ethically.

      If we could bring that approach to Iowa drainage issues, that would truly be an upgrade.

  • Additional Thoughts for Prairie Fan

    I think we’re on the same page for a good portion of this discussion:

    1) I don’t know the specifics of the funding, but I have a sense of the magnitude of the funding we need to begin to make a dent. Start with $50-$100 million annually.

    2) I would agree the NRS isn’t a strategy. It’s a menu at best. And a menu without a vision. We need to focus on more than simply reducing nitrogen. Nitrogen is the indicator of a system out of balance.

    3) I agree we should have more input into the design of wetlands and other publicly funded programs and investments. I think care and interest plays a big role in outcomes and performance. It’s one of the reasons why I think we want to involve county parks in designing, locating and maintaining our green assets. They can likely do a better job than expecting individual landowners to be experts.

    4) Ding Darling spoke about “duck factories” and the idea that wildfowl is a crop produced “thinly.” Another way of talking about distributed wetlands, nearly a 100 years ago. Maybe we can now begin to realize that vision while we think about building diversity and resiliency back into our working landscapes.

    Thanks again for your commentary. It’s very important to bring diverse viewpoints to the table to produce better, more robust solutions.