Do you dread the 5 words “just do the math” like I do? As a high school student, I hated those words. Let’s just say I was mathematically challenged. Yes me, mathematically challenged! As proof, I will let you in on a little secret. I ended my first quarter in Algebra II with an F. (Fortunately, I still learned enough to do simple algebra.)
If you haven’t done the math on conservation, I encourage you to do so. I will tell you it is scary, really scary.
Here are my Top 5 Scary Math Facts for Conservation.
5. Current Funding Levels Aren’t Enough
Recently, I reviewed the Iowa results reported for USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), the flagship program for conservation incentives. To say the least, the results are discouraging. From 2011 through 2015 the EQIP contracts protected 233,500 acres/year. This might seem like a lot but given that Iowa has 27,730,000 acres of farmland, it will take 119 years to complete the task with EQIP. You can apply whatever adjustment you want. The result is the same. Funding programs, such as EQIP, are inadequate to achieve our water quality goals. Also, keep in mind that most structural conservation practices have a planned life of 10 – 35 years.
4. Reducing Nitrogen Use Will Not Achieve Water Quality Goals
Based on modeling (like math) done in Iowa’s Raccoon River Watershed, if 100% of farmers fully adopt and implement a proper nitrogen strategy, they will only achieve about 15-20% of the watershed’s nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals. In order to meet our goals, farmers will need to install wetlands, saturated buffer strips, and bioreactors; and a lot of them. Additionally, we need to dramatically increase the use of cover crops.
3. Grassed Waterway Installation is at a Snail’s Pace
At the current rate, I estimate it will take 50 years to design and install all the grassed waterways needed in Iowa. And this timetable is being generous. The 50 years doesn’t even account for maintenance, repair, and replacement of these grassed waterways after their normal 10-15 year lifespan. This is not an acceptable pace.
2. Soil Erosion is a Drain on Our Economy
Iowa is losing $1 billion dollars of grain production each year due to past soil erosion. To put that differently, the State of Iowa loses one billion dollars each year in economic development due to past erosion (without considering any multiplier). Imagine what that number is if we consider the entire United States!
1. Soil Regeneration is Slow
Today’s best science indicates that we can redevelop soil at a rate of only one-quarter ton per acre per year. It is estimated that Iowa is losing on average, 5 tons/acre/year, with only about ½ of the soil loss being accounted for in this estimate. So, depending on the average soil loss number you wish to use, this means we are losing soil at a rate of 20 to 40 times of that which can be regenerated. Yes, we are depleting our soil much faster than we are replacing it.
These are my Top 5 Scary Math Facts for Conservation. Now, as a test of your mathematical skills, did you catch the mathematical mistake in the first sentence of this blog? “Just do the math” is only four words, not five.