New report paints dire picture of eroding soil on Iowa’s cropland

Video courtesy of Environmental Working Group

Erosion in Iowa is likely worse than previous estimates.

We already knew part the story: swept away by wind and heavy rains, Iowa’s rich soil is disappearing at an alarming rate, stripping the land of its fertility and polluting the state’s waters.

We just didn’t know how serious the problem has become.

Government estimates had put Iowa’s yearly erosion rate at about 5 tons of soil per acre, and more recent data from Iowa State’s Daily Erosion Project pegged that rate much higher – up to 12 times as high in some areas of the state.

But even these estimates may be low, according to Losing Ground, a new report from the Environmental Working Group,  a Washington D.C-based nonprofit.

From aerial surveys and dozens of interviews with agricultural experts across the

Soil Erosion rates by county in 2007 (click to enlarge). Source: Environmental Working Group

Midwest, EWG found gullies, unaccounted for in the ISU or government data, which stretch across farmland and further increase runoff of soil and pesticides into streams.

“What is happening on Iowa farm fields is shocking but goes largely unnoticed,” said Craig Cox, who manages EWG’s agriculture programs from its Ames, Iowa office and is the lead author of the report, in a release.

“We’ve grown complacent thinking we have the soil erosion problem under control, but instead it looks as if we are losing ground in our decades-old fight against this most fundamental and damaging problem in agriculture,” he said.

About 97 percent of soil erosion could be prevented with basic conservation practices, which aren’t consistently implemented, according to the report. But farmers, incentivized by steadily high crop prices and federal subsidies and mandates for ethanol production, continue to maximize yields by plant fencerow-to-fencerow.

What’s more, conservation programs in Iowa and throughout the rest of the Corn Belt remain woefully underfunded – a problem only exacerbated during the recent budget crunch.

Between 1997 and 2009, the federal government paid Corn Belt farmers $51.2 billion in subsidies to spur production, but just $7.0 billion to implement conservation practices. The $18.9 billion spent to subsidize expansion of the corn ethanol industry rubs salt in the wound.

In Iowa, funding for the Department of Natural Resources is at a historic low, making up just one percent of the projected budget for 2012.

Conservation incentives may further erode if, as a proposed bill would mandate, the DNR relinquished its water quality monitoring privileges to the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

“When Iowa “loses ground” everyone loses—farmers, all Iowans, people who live downstream and people who depend on Iowa for food,” said Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director for the Iowa Environmental Council, on the group’s website.

Here’s a roundup of the local and national coverage of the EWG report:

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