Reviving our rivers

First, what a great name: Iowa Rivers Revival. This non-profit advocacy group seeks to improve water quality, recreational and even development opportunities across the Land Between Two Rivers. Bully for them. This week representatives of the coalition met with state legislators. They asked a modest sum, $300,000, to help protect and improve state waterways like our own Little Sioux River. They want to promote conservation, create water trails and help communities capitalize on their rivers as Iowa Falls, Charles City and Dubuque have.

We are delighted to report that they are modeling their effort on the lake restoration program that was sparked by Storm Lake.

A bit of history:

Storm Lake has been pushing lake dredging since 1918. Two relatively small dredging projects were accomplished in the 1930s and 1960s. Then the state pretty much gave up on lake dredging. Emmetsburg bubbled up in the late 1980s to revive Five Island Lake, mainly with federal and local contributions. The state came grudgingly along thanks to Sen. Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg. Storm Lake then hopped aboard and put the entire community behind lobbying the legislature to expand limited state-sponsored dredging on the west end.

Thanks to Sen. Steve Kettering, R-Lake View, Rep. Dan Huseman, R-Aurelia, Sen. Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Vonk and eventually Gov. Tom Vilsack, an annual fund was created to sustain lake restoration projects across Iowa. Clear Lake, the Iowa Great Lakes, Black Hawk Lake, Five Island and Storm Lake, to name just a few, have benefited greatly from just $6-8 million per year in funding from gambling revenues.

We think it should be $15 million per year. More than 100 Iowa lakes are considered impaired. And it’s only getting worse as soil erosion fills them in and over-nutrifies them.

Rivers face many of the same problems, except they are more complex by the nature of their dynamics.

We are just beginning to wake up to the economic, recreational and environmental opportunities from Iowa’s rich natural resources. We have treated our rivers as part of an ag drainage system, primarily, for 150 years. The results show in poor river health.

Iowa Rivers Revival makes a small, starting-step request to restore our rivers and our state with them. We wish the sum were closer to $3 million than $300,000.

Land values ease off

Take some comfort in the fact that Northwest Iowa farmland values backed off a touch this year. Declines in our region ranged from 1% to 3% in 2013, according to the annual Iowa State University Extension survey, settling in between $11,000 and $12,000 per acre. This despite the fact that corn prices have eroded steadily over the past couple years, and the region has been in two straight tough summer droughts that damped corn yields by as much as 75 bushels per acre this year.

Farmland buyers see value because they think corn is at or near its bottom. Soybean prices are holding strong, and the Chinese start to like corn pretty well when it gets near its current price levels. Many agronomists and economists predict that long-term corn prices will trend up as world demand increases. It would appear that bidders believe them.

We much prefer a 2% decline in farmland prices to a 20% drop, as we saw annually during the early 1980s. ISU economist Mike Duffy tells us he thinks that land trading slightly down or sideways is a good thing in that it leads to stability. Duffy worried aloud in past years about land racing up in price, fearing the opposite could occur. He spoke to us with a measure of relief.

“$20,000 land is just not sustainable,” he said.

A smart farmer friend with substantial holdings figures current corn prices can support $9,000 farmland in BV County. These prices might continue to work their way down if he is right, because there seems to be some wisdom expressing itself at auctions.

Low interest rates and strong cash positions among farm operators help ease the slide. During the farm crisis, there was no net income and interest rates topped 20%.

Duffy still believes Iowa is positioned for growth in land prices in the range of 5-8% a year. The rest of the state is catching up to the red-hot market in Northwest Iowa over the past five years. Let’s hope we are finding equilibrium.