The way forward

By ART CULLEN

We are grateful that US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack phoned us last week to clear up misconceptions we may have had regarding his views on water quality. Vilsack, whom we consider as good a friend as you can have in politics, declined to answer our questions about the nexus of agriculture and the environment during a press conference sponsored by the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign. If a Cabinet member were to answer a question about official business at a political event, he could be found in violation of the Hatch Act, Vilsack said. We were incredulous, and he was equally so when we penned an editorial suggesting that someone had gagged him.

The phone call washes it all away. He took all the time we needed to answer our questions, and we expressed regrets to each other. We continue to believe that he is the best secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace and the best governor since Harold Hughes.

But we have a respectful disagreement.

Vilsack sincerely believes that we can make real progress on nutrient conservation through voluntary measures. At some point, somewhere, we as a people have to say: “No, you cannot farm there. You cannot plow up right to the Cedar River, or the Raccoon, and you cannot rip out that grass waterway.”

Otherwise, they will.

At least, 20% of them will. Eighty percent may be choir boys, but the 20% can beat the devil at his own game.

We believe that federal and state governments must work with landowners and farmers by giving cash inducements for conservation, and by setting rules of the road. Such as: You will keep a 20-foot or 50-foot grass buffer between your field and the river.

We understand why agriculture objects. Once you start saying that you can’t plow up to the river, the next slippery step is to say that drainage pipes can be regulated as point-source polluters under the Clean Water Act. At least that is what agri-industry thinks.

The truth is that we can’t dump a barrel of ink down the drain without impunity. Why should a farmer be allowed to dump a couple tons of phosphorous-laden soil into the Raccoon?

Market forces can be too powerful for the best of intentions. You would really like to keep that ground in the Conservation Reserve Program, but when corn gets over $5 a bushel, well …

That really is how it works. And that’s why we need to help farmers keep their soil and nutrients in-field with program assistance, and why the public deserves some protection in return for the investment.

It’s because of the 20%.

We have polled every political leader in Iowa over this question. With but one exception, every leader would like to find a way to settle the dispute. Vilsack, the highest-ranking official, said he is perfectly willing to lock himself in a room with Iowa Republicans and Democrats until a solution is found. He might get hungry when he finds that a majority of Iowans want some sort of regulation to help protect water quality. Coming out of the room without a clear accountability standard would not impress the Des Moines Water Works to dismiss its lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Almost the entire point of the lawsuit is to impose nitrate effluent standards on drainage systems. That is, regulation.

Vilsack and Gov. Terry Branstad are almost identical in their approaches: Stick with voluntary conservation inducements through a huge, multi-billion-dollar state fund that leverages even more federal funding.

They diverge on one key point: Vilsack is attempting to work on a settlement. The former Democratic governor met last week with the chairman of the water works board to see where there might be an opening. The board chairman had no trophy to bring back to Des Moines from Washington. But they did have a constructive conversation. Branstad won’t engage in a serious discussion with the water works or any environmental faction about how to enhance our agriculture to make it more resilient and sustainable. Branstad has said there is a “war” declared by urban Iowa on rural Iowa, even though polling suggests that over 60% of Iowans agree with the water works position — including strong majorities of small-town residents.

Branstad has said that he would attend a water quality summit after the November elections suggested by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she will attend. Gronstal agreed with us that it should be held in Storm Lake.

We now have all the leaders agreeing to a meeting, presumably in Storm Lake, to discuss how to settle this lawsuit and improve Iowa water quality. That is what we suggested from the day the lawsuit was filed: Settle it. The Des Moines Water Works was willing to entertain those talks. The three counties involved were not. At this stage, it might not matter any more what the counties think because they have essentially handed the issue over to Branstad, Vilsack, the water works, et al, to hash out. The counties have sworn off settlement talks. They ordered BV County Attorney Dave Patton not to speak with Water Works CEO Bill Stowe to see where a deal might be had. Those talks are occurring, but BV County has no seat at the table because our supervisors were too arrogant or afraid, flush with dirty, dark agri-industrial defense funding. The world just might pass them by. The darn thing is the supervisors appear to wish it that way. Every day the counties refuse to take the lead in seeking a settlement, they give up leverage to other actors.