Conservationists Call For Mandatory Stream Buffers

Sep 13, 2019

Iowa’s elected conservationists want to stop farmers from planting up to the edges of creeks and rivers. A statewide association is pushing for mandatory 30 foot stream buffers along the state’s waterways, to slow erosion and nutrient loss.

On some waterways in Iowa, you can see crops planted about as close to the edge as you can get, rows of corn and soybeans within just a few feet of the jagged edge of a stream bank.

Rain, flooding, the ebb and flow of waterways, and the natural process of erosion slice away at these stream banks made more vulnerable by farming, sending soil, nutrients and fertilizer downstream.

“You can, in Iowa, farm right up to an edge of a stream. There’s nothing to stop you except good sense and concern for water quality,” said Laura Krouse, who farms seed corn and vegetables in Linn County and is also a commissioner on the Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Krouse joined other commissioners across the state recently in voting to call for an end to this practice at a meeting of the Conservation Districts of Iowa. The CDI’s plan is to implement a 30 foot mandatory buffer around creeks, streams, rivers and lakes in the state, requiring that farmers instead plant perennials like prairie grasses, hay or forage crops or some grains.

Krouse and the Linn County delegation proposed the issue to the group, which represents the state’s soil and water conservation district commissioners, many of whom are farmers themselves.

"You can, in Iowa, farm right up to an edge of a stream. There's nothing to stop you except good sense and concern for water quality." - Laura Krouse, farmer and Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner

The group intends to lobby lawmakers to take a bill on the issue this session.

The proposal is based on a mandatory 50 foot stream buffer law implemented in the state of Minnesota, which according to state records now has a 96 percent compliance rate.

University of Iowa water quality researcher Chris Jones called stream buffers “common sense” and “intuitive."

“You see a stream bank and you see corn rows right up to the stream bank and you see corn sloughing off in to the stream,” Jones said. “It’s a fairly obvious thing to even the most uninformed person when it comes to water quality.”

And the benefits to water quality are clear, Jones added.

“There’s no doubt that it would reduce soil transport to our streams, would very likely reduce phosphorous loss from fields to streams and would also probably create a little bit of habitat,” he said.

Unlike many water quality interventions and best management practices, not planting those few rows of corn or beans, seems relatively simple and inexpensive, Krouse says. Though Krouse and Jones admit that regulating private farmland in Iowa would be controversial.

"I believe that voluntary, incentive-based approaches to delivering conservation practices that are tailored to the landscape - instead of mandatory regulations - are the best way to achieve our state's water quality goals." - Mike Naig, IDALS Secretary

“We see the industry is really craving more land,” Jones said, referring to a bill introduced last session that would have blocked state and local governments from acquiring more public lands. “So a lot of this marginal land, the industry might see that as land that young farmers would have an opportunity to farm.”

And there is a resistance to mandatory legislation as well. The state’s signature water quality program, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, is voluntary, with no specific timelines for the goals it outlines.

In a written statement, Mike Naig, the secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said he would be opposed to a mandatory measure.

“The Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners are important boots on the ground. They work closely with farmers, urban planners and the Department of Agriculture to accelerate the adoption of conservation practices in Iowa,” Naig’s statement read. “I believe that voluntary, incentive-based approaches to delivering conservation practices that are tailored to the landscape — instead of mandatory regulations — are the best way to achieve our state’s water quality goals.”

But Krouse argued that decades of voluntary actions have not done enough to protect Iowa’s water quality.

“It’s not only the owner of the land who’s affected by what they do. It’s the rest of us. And our voices matter,” Krouse said.

She says while many farmers voluntarily plant perennials around the streams on their land, others will not do so unless they have to.

“The water running through that stream is for everybody. So I think we as citizens have a right to say, no, you can’t pollute this water in that way. We want you to fix it. And I think maybe we need to think about hiring some legislators who are willing to do that,” Krouse said. “Sometimes you just have to say no.”