As Iowa Governor Terry Branstad attends events across the state this week celebrating efforts to conserve soil and water resources, Iowans will be looking at how the Governor's stated support lines up with his recommendations for state government's action on conservation issues, says Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.
"During the economic downturn, the state tightened its belt in many areas, including conservation funding," Gelb says, "but Iowa has a long and growing list of troubled waterways in need of conservation protection. With the economy improving, the time has now come to renew our commitment to the health of our natural resources."
Soil and Water Conservation Week, held in the spring each year in Iowa, is set by the governor's proclamation. This year it comes as the Iowa legislature is negotiating on several key conservation budget priorities, including whether to resume funding for the Watershed Improvement Review Board, a state panel that provides funding for local water quality improvement projects across the state.
Iowa Governor lauds soil and water conservation, state investments lag behind
"When it comes to getting soil conservation practices put in place on the ground, Iowa generally relies on individual landowners and local groups to volunteer to take on water quality work in their watersheds," Gelb says. "If Iowa does not invest in programs to support these efforts, the state's basic strategy for conservation falters."
The Watershed Improvement Review Board makes grants to help local groups solve pollution problems in communities across the state. Because projects receive funding from multiple sources, $8.4 million in grants awarded in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years helped launch more than $34 million in water quality projects across the state, including at Lake Rathbun near Centerville in southern Iowa. Lake Rathbun is one of the stops on the Governor's Soil and Water Conservation Week tour this week.
"The Watershed Improvement Review Board supports exactly the type of work our governor is championing this week, yet under his watch, funding for the program has disappeared," Gelb says. In fact, after five years of steady investment at $5 million each year and a reduction to $2 million in 2011, last year the legislature provided no additional funds for WIRB grants.
Declining investment in soil programs is hurting Iowa's conservation progress
This lack of support for watershed projects comes at a time when state commitments to conservation and natural resources priorities are suffering more generally, even after 63% of Iowans demonstrated their support for our natural resources by passing the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010.
Declining investment means the state employs about half the number of soil technicians as it once did to help design and implement needed conservation practices. A report this year by the Iowa Policy Project found that, adjusted for inflation, funding for 7 of 10 key state water quality programs declined about one third over the last decade.
"In his conservation week proclamation this week, the Iowa governor himself recognized how protecting Iowa's natural resources 'reduces flooding and water impairments, enhances wildlife, protects the state's tax base and promotes the health, safety and public welfare of the people of Iowa.'" Gelb says. "Governor Branstad is setting the right tone about the importance of conservation this week, and we hope he will encourage the state legislature at the State Capitol in Des Moines to join him in committing necessary resources to this important work," she adds.