There is a lot of talk about soil and water conservation these days. Iowan’s care deeply about the quality of our water. We are reminded each month when our water bill comes and for some of us daily when we purchase bottles of water, that clean water is not free. Indeed, 30 years ago it was inconceivable that water could become more expensive than gas….yet it has come to pass when you consider bottled water from the store. If you fish, swim or enjoy boating/canoe/kayaking you join many other in wondering if our waters are safe. More often than we care to acknowledge we must admit that our waters are far from what we would like them to be.
I would put forth the observation that we are long overdue calling the question about if voluntary incentive based land and water conservation strategies are the only way to achieve clean water? One metric that I would use would be the acres enrolled into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This program is assuredly voluntary and incentive driven. Moreover, the acres enrolled unquestionably improve and protect water quality. The program pays landowners an annual rental fee for planting the fragile areas prone to erosion on their farms to grasses and in most cases prairie grasses and flowers rather than continuing to plant corn or soybeans. The program reimburses farmers for the cost of establishing the cover on these acres. In some cases, incentive payments are given to the landowner for important conservation areas along waterways, as well as their annual payments. Annual payments for some of the CRP practices can be significant but even the more common "general sign-up" acres can be up to $240/acre.
This year I have observed several high profile filter strip CRP acres are reverting to row crops. In several cases these areas are near our farm in Dallas County. The one that makes me wonder most was surrounding a pond often enjoyed by people fishing. The total CRP area was small; no doubt less than 3 acres of grass encircling the pond and a very small part of the much larger 80-100 acre field.
Last year’s drought dried the pond up and I was amazed to realize how much sediment had moved from the adjacent field into the pond. Each trip past the pond last year, I found myself wondering if the buffer strip had always been in place how it would have prevented much of the silt deposition. This year, I find myself wondering about the decision to convert the filter strip back into row-crop and forgo the benefits provided by the CRP, given the rental rate provided by the governmental program.
So back to the question of using CRP as one water quality metric, what’s happening in Dallas County in 2013? According to Debra Newton the CRP program manager for the Dallas County FSA office, 133 CRP contracts are set to expire in 2013 here in Dallas County. At the conclusion of the recent CRP open enrollment for the general CRP 18 expiring contracts were offered for reenrollment (2 were new contracts) for a total of almost 582 acres being reenrolled. Debra also stated that about 50% were going to be allowed to expire. Case in point, we lost ground in CRP acres enrolled here in Dallas County.
My conclusion is that Iowa’s water quality is in trouble, if $240/acre annual rental rates, plus bonus incentives, plus establishment costs aren’t enough to entice landowners into setting aside their most fragile lands. In the short time I was writing this article from my home office, I heard several rooster pheasants crowing and a bobwhite quail calling numerous times. I have utilized CRP practices to "picture frame" one large field, a CRP windbreak to protect our house and garden from wind and weather, and we’ve used the general CRP to take a wet less productive area out of crop production. The value I get from seeing and hearing the wildlife use this area as well as the enjoyment of friends and family who use the CRP for a fall hunt leaves me scratching my head why the "voluntary & incentive driven" approach to conservation isn’t working better. But a good metric relies on fact not emotion, so the fact is inescapable, that our landscape will have less CRP. Me I’m just wanting to "call the question", because like most of you I think we all want cleaner water.