Bill would add ‘soil health’ to goals of state conservation programs

By: - March 3, 2021 12:11 pm

Rural Americans died of COVID-19 of significantly higher rates in September. (Photo by Sam Gellman Photography/Getty Images)

A bill that would add “soil health” as a goal of state-backed conservation projects advanced in the Legislature Wednesday.

House File 646 would add the federal definition of “soil health” to the state’s code language guiding the work of soil conservation districts. The districts offer cost-share grants for improvements on farms. 

The legislation, before an amendment stripped the language, envisioned an a tax of 6.75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in part to “carry out water quality protection projects and operations which include efforts to maintain, protect and improve the water quality of surface and groundwater from point and nonpoint sources in a manner consistent with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, who introduced the legislation, offered an amendment stripping language referring to how to finance the work. He said the main purpose of the bill was to add “soil health” as defined by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service to the mix. 

“The goal is to put soil health in there,” Mommsen told the House Agriculture Committee. “The code is silent on soil health.”

The amendment removed language that referred to taxes or levies, he added.

“We got some people excited” with the language about taxes, Mommsen said before the bill was amended.

There were no other comments on the bill at Wednesday’s meeting. The amended measure passed unanimously.

Funding for water quality and soil conservation districts has been a hot topic for years. The debate took a turn this year when Gov. Kim Reynolds shelved the Invest in Iowa Act, at least temporarily, due to the financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal would have used a sales tax increase, offset by property tax cuts, to fund long-awaited work under the voter-approved Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.  

Since that idea is on hold, environmental groups and others have been looking for other ways to increase spending on water quality, soil conservation and outdoor recreation. All three have regularly been cited by business groups as key to attracting and keeping workers in Iowa.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.