Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conservation Tillage and the Floods

This post was the beginning of an email exchange among the members of the Science and Policy Committee of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. We've posted Pete Nowak's (UW-Madison) original comments as well as subsequent comments from Jerry Hatfield (NSTL), Dewayne Johnson (SWCS), and Andy Manale (EPA) over at the SWCS Network to prompt further discussion ( ~Dewayne

Early last week I had a chance to drive from Madison to Nebraska City, Nebraska for a workshop at the Lied Center. This trip took me across SW Wisconsin, Central Iowa, and SW Iowa shortly after the significant rain events (I could not cut down and pick up I-80 as the Interstate was closed outside of Iowa City due to flooding).

What I saw was a tragedy in terms of our soil and water resources. I have not seen washing and gullies to this extent since I was a wet behind the ears assistant professor at Iowa State University in the early 1980s. Many of you will remember that this was before widespread use of various conservation tillage systems, and it was still a "normal" practice to moldboard plow fall soybean ground. The streams and rivers I crossed were dark brown with major streambank slumping evident. The travesty is what the science and policy communities allowed to happen on our agricultural lands in the Heartland. The only exception was those rare fields where continuous no-till was in use.

So you might be asking what this situation has to do with science and policy? I believe the science and policy questions revolves around how we could allow something like this to occur. When was the last time you saw conservation tillage or no-tillage being listed as a major research issue? Yet many of those "systems" failed in the rains last week. I suspect that many failures had more to do with how they were implemented rather than the inherent capacity of those systems. I do not buy the argument that this was a "natural" event where nothing could be done to prevent it! The lack of grassed waterways and other conservation practices that should have been part of the tillage system were absent in most cases. The Kansas City conference on conservation at the landscape scale had much to offer relative to explaining why this occurred, but to what extent are the science recommendations from that conference being addressed by the SWCS Board? Should not our committee be pushing the SWCS Board to reach out to other scientific societies to explore how we can design conservation at the landscape scale?

The policy side of last weeks tragedy is even worse. It was clear that a number of farmers were overcome with greed in pursuing high crop prices at the expense of common sense on how to treat the land. More important, where were our federal agencies in enforcing compliance on these now highly eroded land? We have laws in place but these laws are not being enforced by NRCS and others. Why not is a legitimate policy question. Another policy question is how we can be giving away tens of millions of federal dollars in the Conservation Security Program yet apparently this had little impact last week (a great research question). Any individual looking at the amount spent on conservation versus what happened has to wonder whether there was any thought given to how those dollars were allocated.

It seems to me that our agricultural federal agencies and Districts have redefined their role to one where they give away government checks with no expectation or responsibilities relative to conservation. It also seems to me that a lot of land grant university and federal agency research is focused on the latest "hot themes" where there is no obligation to finish the hot topics of yesteryear. Who has the responsibility to speak for the soil and water resources of this country if not the federal agencies and land grant scientists charged with this mission? Again, a messy policy issue that we would all rather avoid.

Let me repeat what I have stated many times with this committee in the past. Our mission is to raise the hard and unpopular questions with the SWCS Board. Ours is not to conduct a polularity contest where we all agree with the laest trends or research areas with new funding. There are some hard and unpopular questions that need to be addressed or at least raised for discussion. Under no circumstances should we allow the Board to be "blind-sided" by a science issue or policy question they did not anticipate. We (our committee) needs to be one step ahead of the SWCS Board on both science and policy themes.

Someone in Iowa or elsewhere is going to raise the questions listed above. Will the press catch on that we have another situation where it looks like all is going great until there is a real need, and then the system falls apart? Will the SWCS Board know how to respond? Look at the mission statement of SWCS and then ask whose job it is to work for the right science to be conducted on soil and water conservation questions. The same could be said for policy.

Let me repeat myself; if we will not speak for our soil and water resources, then who will?


Pete Nowak
Professor, Environmental Studies, Nelson Institute Soil & Water Conservation Specialist, UW-CALS ERC University of Wisconsin-Madison
64 Science Hall550 North Park Street
Madison, WI 53706608-265-3581

To participate in the discussion or read the other posts in the topic, please visit

1 comment:

Dewayne Johnson said...

Three Des Moines Register opinion columns today (7/7/2008)
Guest column: Demand dollars for conservation
As Iowans wade through the tasks of cleaning up and rebuilding, we must demand implementation of strategies to reduce future flooding.

Guest column: Is 'conservation' increasing flooding?
The June 27 interview with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and the recent urban flooding may provide an opportunity for a public discussion about the consequences of conservation practices supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Guest column: Lessons from the flood
As Iowa struggles to rebound from devastating tornadoes and flooding, we have opportunities for creating long-term solutions that prevent losses from future natural disasters and at the same time conserve our soil, improve water quality in our rivers and streams, recharge our aquifers and reduce...

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