Appeared in the Des Moines Register on Thursday, July 12, 2018
With the latest round of debate on Iowa’s water quality problem, it’s clear there are no winners and losers, just too much water. Mother Nature has carved such a destructive path, as though she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry in anger. To honor those we lost to drowning accidents last month – Larry Cotlar, Cha Charles Lee, Richard Lewis Mart, Ikran Noor, Celeste Sandoval-Ramos, and Landyn Short – the debate must continue.
Our water quality problem is not just a funding issue, it’s a strategy, leadership, and administrative problem. And, it’s a climate change problem. Rather than pecking at each other over the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, it’s time to broaden the conversation and dream bigger. Because funding the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust is just the beginning of getting serious about water in Iowa.
More than 20 years have passed since Midwestern states first convened to address growing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa has led in researching best management practices to conserve nutrients on-farm by means of work done largely through the Leopold Center at Iowa State. Iowa has lagged behind other states, though, in emphasizing robust local planning strategies to manage watersheds.
Good planning can answer questions while helping the state set a strategy for limited funds. What does it take to cut nutrients by 45 percent? Are some areas of the state leakier than others? Where do big projects make the most sense?
When Minnesota passed its buffer requirement in 2015, it also passed legislation to strengthen programs for watershed planning called One Watershed, One Plan. The program compiles local plans into a statewide strategy, including modernizing drainage districts. Coordinating and providing similar oversight to Iowa’s existing local watershed plans and expanding planning grants for new efforts would make a lot of sense.
Getting serious about climate change also offers huge opportunities for farmers through restoring carbon to the soil. Iowa could draft a climate adaptation plan, as 18 other states have done, that includes considerations for agriculture. The same practices that restore soil carbon can boost the soil’s natural ability to retain water. Such a plan could combine the important goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy with carbon sequestration targets in a holistic approach.
But, who is going to do this? Farmers and legislators have stepped up in some places, but have run short on funding. Trust has eroded with voters as elected officials continue to act like the only institutions that matter are privately owned. We need more people to step up and work in this space to coordinate projects into the landscape. As long as state funding continues to drop, nonprofits and public-private partnerships will continue to try fill the gaps.
Leadership is still necessary on water quality, and voters should remember that this fall. Funding the Trust is important, but is not the silver bullet for Iowa. We all have a role to play which needs to start with bigger and tougher conversations, especially with those vying for our votes, if we are going to make a difference.
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