- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A voluntary state program that aims to improve water quality practices at farms around Iowa is entering its fourth year amid growing differences about the best ways to clean up the state’s waterways.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship announced this month the sign-up period is open for its cost-share program that allows farmers to offset the expense of implementing water quality practices that reduce farm runoff. The money for farmers, expected to total about $3.5 million, will be available in July.

The program is one of several initiatives aimed at water conservation, said department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef. He emphasized there is coordination between federal, state and local officials to work with Iowa farmers and landowners to tackle the bigger issues surrounding water quality.

“All of us working together is how we’re going to make significant progress,” he said.

However, some people contend a voluntary program for farmers doesn’t do enough to ensure long-term water quality benefits. Nearly 3,000 farmers have used the program since it began in 2013, but that’s a small percentage of the roughly 87,000 farms the federal government estimates operate in Iowa.

Craig Cox, senior vice president at the national research and advocacy group Environmental Working Group, said Iowa has received more than $3 billion in federal funding since 2005 for water and soil conservation that includes cost-share programs. Such programs go back several decades, he said.

“There’s been money spent trying to get farmers to improve water quality for a long, long time and it’s not producing cleaner water,” he said.

Cox co-authored a report released in January that focuses on what he called flaws with voluntary programs like the one in Iowa. One key argument is that farmers who voluntarily start conservation efforts can stop at any time, halting any lasting improvement in farm practices.

Vande Hoef said Iowa’s cost-share program is unique because it focuses on reducing nutrients in the water while other federal programs are broader on conservation goals. It has expanded since its launch to offer more money and more incentives so farmers will stick with the effort. The department expects to receive $9.6 million in the next budget year for water quality initiatives, some of which will help fund the program.

There’s a growing spotlight on Iowa’s waterways amid a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works, which provides drinking water for about 500,000 people and is seeking to force county officials to reduce farm runoff. Jennifer Terry, the utility’s environmental advocacy leader, said in an email the state needs a targeted, strategic implementation plan for cleaning up waterways, “not just random acts of conservation sprinkled across the state which will have no benefit on water quality.”

Cox said the utility’s lawsuit has raised a philosophical issue and it’s getting harder to ignore.

“What I’m doing on my land is polluting your water but you need to pay me to stop,” he said. “That’s what voluntary programs mean.”

Pat Tekippe, who grows corn, soybean and other crops on his farm in northeast Iowa, said he has used the cost-share program twice and plans to do so again with this new cycle of available funds.

Tekippe said he understands arguments from both sides, but he also emphasized that farmers are facing increasing costs at a time of low commodity prices. Tekippe hopes the program will expand to encourage more participation and education, and he said farmers want to be active on conservation efforts.

“It is a complex issue, and there’s no easy straightforward answer, otherwise we’d have it,” he said.

Iowa lawmakers failed this session to agree on a funding plan for water quality initiatives, but the issue is expected to come up again next year. Besides tackling funding questions, legislators also must figure out whether initiatives should be voluntary like the cost-share program.

Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, supported a bill this session that would have created a commission to develop clean water policies and funding options.

It would be difficult to approve mandatory requirements through the Legislature but there are other possible measures of accountability, Isenhart said.

“We need to see meaningful private investments and that has to come from the people who are directly involved. That’s the producers,” he said.


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