Play it conservative



Here’s a big part of what’s wrong with how Iowa approaches water quality: A new watershed authority for the North Raccoon River will allocate $2.3 million of the $2.5 million it is expected to receive from the Iowa Department of Agriculture next year to the Storm Lake watershed in Buena Vista County and the Cedar Creek watershed in Pocahontas County. Both are worthy candidates for attention, especially Cedar Creek with so little conservation practice surrounding it. The problem is that nobody really has any idea how that money will be used, or whether it will have a practical effect.

There will be bioreactors or bioswales or any number of ideas to be used to lessen the nutrient load to the Raccoon. Storm Lake and Cedar Creek were decided to receive the money by somebody from Washington, we understand, who probably has no idea about what actually happens here. It will be up to local officials to decide how to spread the money around.

We have been using this general approach since the Dust Bowl: Identify a huge problem and throw money at it until you throw money at the next problem.

Legislators have been increasing water quality appropriations by about $10 million per year to the detriment of other programs in a zero-sum budget. Next year, we understand they would bump it up at least another $20 million. To what end? While we have been spending, the nitrate level in the Raccoon River has been rising steadily.

Everyone has an idea how to spend yet more money. Many would like to see us increase the state sales tax for natural resource and water quality funding. About two-thirds of that sales tax revenue would go to water quality projects of nebulous value that have not demonstrated results.

Markets and Nature are so large, and the Iowa budget is so small. We would be better off to leave water quality funding — that is, writing a big fat check to farm landowners tied into the agri-chemical supply chain — where it is until we figure out where those big forces are taking us.

Land use will change when markets demand it or Nature forces it. Both are in play as we shop for seed and chemicals amid the basketball games on TV. Markets are demanding less corn, given its price. They demand less ethanol, and will demand less yet as the auto fleet goes electric. We are losing soil at a rate four times faster than it can be regenerated. It is at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where a dead zone grows every year despite Iowa’s remedial machinations. Nature is foiling glyphosate and Bt corn as it adapts to our genetic engineering; large-scale commercial farmers are beginning to question the value of seed premiums that are not paying off in yields or price. More hogs are moving into Iowa to compete for corn, or so it would appear. Just how is Iowa’s water quality probe going to affect all those dynamics? It won’t, plain and simple. It hasn’t.

Federal policy could make a difference. It was the Renewable Fuels Standard coming on that caused the corn market bubble in 2008 that drove Iowans to plow up those acres in grass for corn and soybeans. Tinkering with the RFS is likely to have more effect on nitrate than 3,000 bioreactors. Forbidding crop insurance in flood-prone areas and on hills would be a start. The simple fact is that we have to reduce corn acreage by about a third to eliminate the nitrate (and phosphorous) pollution in our surface water. If you do that, you solve the most serious problem Iowa faces: soil loss that has been growing with extreme weather since 1980.

The legislature should concern itself primarily with boosting funding for education. We figure that the state budget has a structural deficit of at least $100 million built in, driven by Medicaid mismanagement, that must be fixed immediately. Otherwise, our property taxes will soar like we have not seen before. If we cannot increase educational opportunities our economic opportunities will decay with them. If we cannot manage the simple arithmetic of education funding — that is, at least keep pace with inflation — then the Iowa Legislature cannot be expected to manage climate change, corn acreage, nutrient loss and ethanol production in a water quality bill.

This is not a problem that is the exclusive domain of Iowa. Southern Minnesota is in worse shape than the North Raccoon River Watershed. So long as we throw bags of money at it we think we are solving the problem. All we are doing is robbing the taxpayer to pay for corporate excess whose appetite has been unrestrained. Iowa farmers are figuring it out. They are more interested than ever in sustainable or even regenerative agriculture. They know how important livestock are to our landscape. They never have liked “working the program” to make their profit. Cover crops are increasing. We are not breaking up the filter strips like we were. It is good that we are paying attention to Cedar Creek, a drainage ditch with nary a blade of grass next to it. Storm Lake’s watershed can put free money to creative use, we are sure. Storm Lake is a leader in the Midwest. It’s just that it will not solve the problems we have with too much corn and fertilizer, not enough cattle and farmers locked in to a chemical and seed complex which they know does not necessarily represent their interests in on-farm profitability and sustainability. Markets and Nature, with a responsible farm bill, will be all the prompt farmers need. Iowans should save their money for something they can influence from the Legislature, like our deprived schools.