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Iowa Water Quality Funding Not Easy to Track

Clay Masters
A drainage ditch in rural Sac County, Iowa.

This week IPR News is taking a look at water quality in the state.

A state cost share program designed to help Iowa farmers install nutrient reduction practices on their farm is entering its fourth year.  Lawmakers and the governor struggled this legislative session to come up with a way to spend more money on water quality in the state. In the last three years, the state has awarded $12 million on 45 different projects.

Northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista and Pocahontas counties are a heavily row-cropped region. Farmers here rely on underground pipes, commonly called tiles, to keep water from flooding their crops. This region is also home to the main tributary of the Raccoon River. Two-hundred miles downstream, it’s used as a water source for the city of Des Moines.

On this day, heavy rain is keeping farmer Marc Bertness off his planter and behind his desk in Sioux Rapids.

“We consider ourselves environmentalists of a sort,” Bertness says. “Not necessarily tree huggers, but we think you ought to take care of the land.”

Bertness has found different ways to help pay for cleaning the water that leaves the fields of his family farm he took over 40 years ago.

“There are costs involved in this. This isn’t just a case that the farmer can decide to do one thing and its revenue neutral to it,” Bertness says. “We have to consciously do some things that will take money out of our profit.”

Bertness is part of a cost sharing program here in the northern headwaters of the Raccoon River.

$500,000 was awarded last year to the Buena Vista and Pocahontas Soil and Water Conservation Districts. In the application they note the watershed here has the highest nitrate to nitrogen concentrations of all watersheds in the Mississippi River basin.

That combination is hazardous to human health.

Brian Waldstein is chairman of the Buena Vista County Soil and Water Conservation District.

He says not only is improving water quality good for the environment, it’s also just good business.

“The nitrate that’s getting off our soil (is) our fuel tank,” Waldstein says. “That’s our fuel tank to drive this engine out here and we don’t like having that fuel tank leak.”

Soil and Water Conservation Districts partner with businesses or municipalities and submit a request to Iowa’s Department of Agriculture for funding.  In this case, the districts partnered with City of Storm Lake, the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Pork Producers, and Iowa State University Extension, among others.

Together they’ve put up $1.2 million.  They’re working with farmers to implement water quality practices such as planting more than four-thousand acres of cover crops.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says they want farmers to see the benefits of water quality practices through three-year demonstration projects.

“We want people to feel very free to engage and we want people to not feel like they’re somehow made a negative example of,” Northey says.

Through an open records request, IPR News asked for the names of individual farmers receiving state money through the Water Quality Initiative Program.  The Department of Agriculture together with the Attorney General’s office and Iowa Public Information board denied the request.  

In a joint statement, they say in conjunction with Iowa Code, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is not able to provide any information/records that identifies “a person holding legal interest in agricultural land or specific agricultural land.”

“They certainly have some private information that may well provide the project that they don’t necessarily want shared,” Northey says.

“The state is spending a particular amount of money in particular water shed which may be effected by the farming practices of scores of farmers,” says Randy Evans, Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “There is no way for the public to effectively monitor who’s receiving the money and what they’re doing with it.”

In 2010, Iowa voters approved atrust fund for outdoor costs such as water quality.

It remains unfunded. Meanwhile, the ag department received $9.6 million to fund more demonstration projects for this fiscal year. 

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.