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Water quality efforts fall further with loss of Leopold Center funding

Published: Friday, May 19, 2017 10:05 a.m. CST

In a time when water quality from farm runoff has been front and center in state politics, it is interesting the state legislature voted to eliminate funding Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, which studies that very topic.

The center was saved by Gov. Terry Branstad, but only in name as all funding will be transferred to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, also at Iowa State.

The center was created in 1987 as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, also signed by Branstad. During its 30 years, the Leopold Center sponsored more than 600 grants involving research, education and demonstration on a wide range of agricultural topics and investigated many of the practices years before becoming a part of Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, including: buffer strips, bioreactors, prairie strips, cover crops, payments for ecosystems services, integrated pest management, early spring nitrate tests, crop rotations and rotational grazing.

It was named in honor of Burlington native Aldo Leopold, an internationally known conservationist, ecologist and educator. He saw the need for development of a land ethic, outlined in his 1949 book of essays, A Sand County Almanac.

It also worked with local foods systems, promoting farmers markets, grape production for wineries, food hubs and immigrant garden projects. Thousands of investigators, graduate students, farmers, community members, agency staff and interested Iowans have participated in Leopold Center research and outreach.

With funding no longer provided, the center will move more than 30 new grant projects approved to begin in February and their management to the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which has also been put in charge of wrapping up the center's affairs by the end of 2017.

While some of the center's work will continue on at the new facilities, focus on important topics revolving around water quality will cease by those who have studied and worked to improve it for decades. 

"For 30 years, the Leopold Center has offered hope, new knowledge and significant research findings to Iowa and the nation," Leopold Center Director Mark Rasmussen said. "While we appreciate that the name and the center will remain, the loss of all state funding severely restricts operations and our ability to serve our many stakeholders."

With increased worry and costs relating to runoff in Iowa's water ways growing, is water quality really one of the governor's priorities, as he says? Defunding an institution focused on that very issue seems a step in the wrong direction.