Did you see Susan Heathcote’s op-ed on the Conservation Reserve Program?

Iowa Environmental Council water program director Susan Heathcote penned an op-ed for today’s Des Moines Sunday Register that discussed the future of the 1.6 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa.

As Susan explained, CRP has been a keystone conservation program in Iowa for 25 years.  But although you may have heard of CRP–or read articles on its role in Iowa, like this one, which appeared recently in the New York Times–you might not know how the program works.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains the program this way in its Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill:

“The primary purposes of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources by temporarily removing land from agricultural production. Under the CRP general sign-up provision, USDA offers annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to farmers to establish long-term conserving cover, primarily grasses and trees, on land that has been in row crop production… All CRP contracts between USDA and agricultural landowners are for 10 to 15 years, with the longer agreements for land planted to trees.”

Because land in CRP is covered in grass all throughout the year, it’s less exposed to soil erosion than it would be if it were plowed and planted in row crops.  And the grass also effectively filters out significant amounts of excess nutrients–nitrogen and phosphorous–that might otherwise end up causing serious water quality problems in our streams, rivers, and lakes.

A map showing the boundaries of the Mississippi River basin with a distribution of dots to indicate the location of acres enrolled in CRP.

One dot on this map represents 1000 acres enrolled in CRP

In fact, viewed across the whole Mississippi River basin, the environmental benefits of land in CRP are extraordinary:  the USDA estimates that in 2010, across this whole area, CRP kept 159 million tons of soil in place and kept 431 million pounds of nitrogen and 89 million pounds of phosphorous out of waterways.

Clearly, what happens to this resource in Iowa and around the nation is critically important.  And at the same time, for the reasons Susan discussed, significant amounts of land seem ready to leave the protection of the Conservation Reserve Program–including highly vulnerable land at risk for significant soil erosion.

Because of this risk, the Iowa Environmental Council is prepared to support a variety of policies to protect the conservation gains CRP has given us and keep Iowa’s most vulnerable land safe.  And you can help.  Be sure you’re signed up to receive our action alerts so you’ll know when the moment is right to speak out in defense of conserving Iowa’s landscape.

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