Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL), a coalition of individuals and organizations committed to improving the state’s environmental and recreational amenities, is building momentum towards obtaining sustainable funding for natural resources.
In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters approved the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. This constitutionally protected trust dedicates sales tax revenue, currently estimated at $180 million annually, to the environment, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreational amenities.
Funding of the trust begins once the state legislature increases the tax by at least 3/8 of a cent. After six years, Iowans are still waiting.
Meanwhile the need has only grown. CRP enrollment in Iowa has fallen from over 2.2 million acres in the mid-1990s to less than 1.5 million acres in 2015. Pheasant harvest has plummeted from over 1 million birds annually to around 200,000.
And perhaps most alarming is the continued degradation of the state’s waters. Many rivers and streams are polluted with excess nutrients from agricultural and urban runoff, sometimes placing urban and rural interests at odds. In 2015, Des Moines Waterworks sued three northwestern Iowa counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a principle drinking water source.
Agricultural leaders are working to address the problem, said Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA).
“Our number one purpose is improving the competitiveness of Iowa soybean farmers,” Leeds said. “If we’re going to be competitive, we have to take care of our natural resources.”
One example of how funding the trust could improve the state’s natural resources is Eldred-Sherwood Lake in Hancock County. This popular 22-acre park is prone to frequent algae blooms which harm desirable aquatic species while creating poor aesthetics. As a result, Eldred-Sherwood Lake has landed on the state’s impaired waters list. Iowa Department of Natural Resources studies indicate the blooms are driven by excess phosphorous from surface runoff and tile discharge. Nutrients not contained within the lake impact the Iowa River.
A 51 percent phosphorous reduction is needed to achieve water-quality goals for the lake. As a result, the Hancock County Conservation Board is working with landowners and numerous partners, including the Iowa Soybean Association, towards this ambitious goal.
Leeds said the project exemplifies efforts ISA has made for over 25 years. Reducing nutrient and soil loss is both financially and environmentally sound, he noted. Many producers utilize in-field practices such as conservation tillage and cover crops to do so.
Yet some spots are too erodible, wet or flood-prone for optimal crop production. “There are places in most farmer’s fields where they’ve never made any money,” Leeds said. Conservation practices in these areas can help producers while protecting soil and water. Among the most effective practices are restoration of wetlands and native grasslands, which also provide habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Such efforts are expensive, however, while little of the impact accrues to the landowner’s bottom line.
“The benefits to most of these edge-of-field practices don’t go to the farmer,” Leeds said. “They provide benefits to the downstream users of that water.”
Government programs once helped farmers bring these marginal acres into production, Leeds noted. He believes public support to restore them for the good of all Iowans is warranted.
“It’s going to take investment of resources,” Leeds said. “We’re going to have to have shared responsibility.”
Chris Lee, vice president of Des Moines County’s Aldo Leopold Pheasants Forever chapter, believes current appropriations are inadequate to meet this responsibility. New, sustainable funding from the trust is needed.
The chapter helps to create and improve both public- and private-land habitat while recruiting future conservationists through shooting sports, field days and mentored outdoor excursions.
Lee sees both as critical, and complimentary. “The only way (youth) programs like that are going to be successful is to create the places to go. Not just to purchase land, but to better manage what we have. If we’re going to do these things, we’re going to have to have resources.”
His two-year-old daughter reminds him of the importance every day. “She always wants to be outdoors… It just proves to me that (a love of nature) is in our DNA, that it’s in our blood.”
Lee believes recreational amenities are critical to keeping young people in the state. “It isn’t just grasses and trees. This is economic development.”
Leeds concurs. “An increased quality of life attracts and retains people, which leads to a vibrant economy.”
While tax increases are seldom popular, both Leeds and Lee noted a recent state fuel tax increase generated minimal political fallout. “I don’t know of a single Iowa legislator who paid a price,” Leeds said.
As with the fuel tax, Leeds sees support coalescing around sustainable funding for natural resources. “I think there’s momentum. We’re getting closer.”
Pheasants Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent urges Iowans to capture that momentum. “These moments come around once in a generation. Heroes seize these times. Iowa needs heroes in the legislature to make this the year Iowa’s habitat, water, soil, and outdoor heritage are secured forever. Every Iowa Pheasants Forever member needs to pick up the phone and tell their state representative how important this legislation is to them and their children. It’s time for Iowa’s habitat heroes to step forward.”
To find the name and contact information for your state legislators, go to http://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/find
To learn more about Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, go to http://www.iowaswaterandlandlegacy.org
By Tim Ackarman
Photo By IWILL