Across Iowa, increasing levels of nitrate, phosphorus and sediment entering our rivers, lakes and streams has reached a tipping point. It threatens the health of our drinking water and habitat for many fish and game.
A majority of this pollution is runoff from our vast fields of corn and soybeans. Exposed earth during heavy rain events washes away the top soil and enters our waterways.
State lawmakers finally voted in this year’s legislative session to give farmers some financial incentive to implement the 15-year-old voluntary nutrient reduction strategy, started by former Gov. Terry Branstad. It came in the form of a $282 million water quality bill passed by the legislature. It was the first bill signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in the 2018 legislative session.
The biggest impact from the water quality law will be long-awaited funding for soil management practices. The law will provide $156 million over the next 12 years for cover crops, buffer zones and bioreactors.
The new law will also create a Water Quality Financial Assistance Fund managed by the state treasurer’s office. A portion of existing tax money from metered drinking water that currently goes into Iowa’s general fund and school infrastructure will be rerouted into the new program, targeting cities and water utility projects.
Some of the money will be awarded through the Iowa Finance Authority to communities to improve existing or install new wastewater treatment facilities. The law will also direct funds toward ground and surface water improvement projects.
Critics of the legislation say the bill should have called for new money to address these problems, as opposed to redistributing existing money from other areas of the state budget during a revenue shortfall.
Experts say $282 million is not enough. It takes some of the financial sting off farmers wanting to do the right thing and better protect their soil, but it does not provide funding to train farmers on how to implement these techniques. According to Jasper County NRCS Board Member Gordon Wassenaar, the bill does not provide resources for local agencies to provide oversight and support for farmers in nutrient reduction.
The legislation is a first step toward meaningful action, but it’s not enough. For the nutrient reduction strategy to be successful, Iowa farmers need more than just financial incentive, they need educational support. If we’re going to ask the ag-community to change the way it farms, we need to provide all the resources for success.
Iowa’s waterways need a long-term vision, not a near-term plan that falls short. Our cities must also do their part, ensuring its water discharge is safe. We must put the urban-rural divide aside to solve this problem. Urban residents need farmers for the commodities they produce and money they inject into Iowa’s economy, while farmers need the urban centers for its services and consumers. The quality of our water needs us all.