wetland berm

Doug Bohlen stands on the weir of the shallow water wetland-flood control structure built on his father’s farm as part of the Beaver Creek Watershed project. The wetland berm is planted to native grasses. 

Jean Caspers-Simmet, Iowa Farmer Today

ANKENY — If there isn’t enough money in the budget to do all the conservation work that is needed, then maybe farmers need to look at how conservation is financed.

“Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century,” said Alex Echols, an independent consultant who was one of several speakers on a panel talking about conservation at the Iowa Soybean Association annual meeting Dec. 14.

The problem is that while water and water quality are incredibly important, it could be a major challenge to get enough government funding to deal with the problem, Echols said. With that in mind, he and other speakers on the panel said perhaps farmers need to find ways of leveraging private financing.

That will require changes in policy and analysis that would allow farmers to deal with — and appeal to — other entities in negotiations for funding of conservation practices.

Agriculture is good at generating cost estimates, said Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services at ISA, but it’s not as good at generating benefit estimates.

It is easier to generate those estimates on a watershed-by-watershed approach, according to Adam Kiel, operations manager for ISA Environmental Programs. But he said not all benefits will be easily quantifiable from a financial standpoint — which would appeal to private entities — and those will still require government support.

Flood control and drinking water quality do have some quantifiable benefits, Kiel said. If farmers can partner with cities or with specific businesses in those cities to mitigate flood or water issues, they might be able to bring in private funding.

Iowa is having a debate about long-term state funding streams. States from the Midwest have found different ways to solve the problem. In Minnesota and Missouri, the state sales tax was increased to provide those long-term funding streams. In Wisconsin, there has been support for numerous urban-rural partnerships in watersheds.

The good news is that the public generally supports water quality improvement efforts, said Jamie Konopacky, an attorney and watershed policy fellow at the Harvard Environmental Policy Initiative. And many support the voluntary approach to water quality improvement. But she added that state funding will still be necessary, especially for items such as technical support and planning. That means staffing for state agricultural or environmental agencies will be important.

The other thing panelists reminded farmers is that while not all conservation or water quality practices help short-term profits on the farm, they do provide long-term benefits, such as better soil health. The challenge for farmers is to be able to quantify those benefits and find ways of paying for them in the short term.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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