Topsoil as Infrastructure

December, 2016

Lincoln -- It's likely Congress will pass infrastructure legislation in the coming year to rebuild roads, bridges, railways, airports, harbors, power grids, and the like. Without doubt, the nation's infrastructure has been neglected and has deteriorated over decades of increasing demands. Infrastructure improvements are also an important source of jobs.

But rebuilding the nation's deteriorating topsoil will not be on the list of infrastructure improvements because, as most any politician will tell you, that's a matter for the farm bill, not an infrastructure bill.

This is a mistake for multiple reasons:

• The enormous loss of topsoil is arguably more severe than the deteriorations in any other category. The United States loses an average of three tons per acre per year. It may sound alarmist, but responsible estimates suggest that, at current rates of loss, the world has only sixty years of topsoil left.

• The current farm bill and its funding have been a disappointment, cutting soil and water conservation programs while encouraging agricultural overproduction. This depresses prices and farm income but increases federal spending on subsidies. The economies of states like Nebraska are in trouble.

• Unmitigated topsoil erosion presents a huge cost to other infrastructure improvements. If soil and water were retained better on the land, consider how much longer roads and bridges would last, how less frequently rivers and harbors would require dredging, how cities would save on stormwater infrastructure, and how cleaner water would result from better natural filtration, lessening costs of water treatment facilities. Consider as well how hydroelectric plants would generate electricity more efficiently, and how much healthier our off-shore reefs and fisheries would be.

• "Green infrastructure" involves construction projects much the same as other infrastructure efforts. Examples: aquifer recharge structures, bio-swales, wetlands restorations, terraces and waterways, small watershed dams, pervious pavements, and rainwater harvesting facilities, just to name a few. No one should forget the substantial infrastructure effort (shelterbelts and cover crops) put forth in the 1930s to combat the Dust Bowl; all that has largely disappeared.

• Infrastructure improvements have health and safety implications, with concomitant economic benefits. Safer transportation systems are an obvious example. Likewise, topsoil is a health and safety issue. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide run-off is a major problem all the way up and down the food chain.

So what is stopping Congress from addressing topsoil deterioration as an infrastructure issue? Lack of imagination, for one thing. Silo thinking ("it's a farm bill issue") for another. Congressional rules also can get in the way. However, Congress increasingly turns to so-called reconciliation bills to get around jurisdictional problems and filibusters. The infrastructure bill could be handled through reconciliation.

Maybe Nebraska's congressional delegation would step up for topsoil? It should, not only for the good of the country but also to get a share of federal infrastructure spending for the country's heartland.