Improvements to Iowa water quality on hold at state legislature

Little legislative action seen in the near term

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High hopes for water quality progress have stalled out in this session of the Legislature.

“I see no hope for significant water quality legislation now or even in the next session unless the people rise up and demand it. I really don’t,” said Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said his hopes for bipartisan interest in addressing water quality problems have fallen victim to the Republican majority’s adherence to “a hard right ideological agenda.”

Momentum for improving the quality of Iowa’s degraded water peaked on Nov. 8 when 74 percent of Linn County voters approved a $40 million conservation bond.

That expression of overwhelming support for action to counter agricultural pollution of surface water seemed to bode well for long-sought legislation to provide substantial funding for conservation practices recommended under the state’s nutrient reduction strategy.

It also raised hopes that the Legislature — as urged by several county boards of supervisors — would revisit the 2002 law that established the master matrix used to score applications for building livestock confinements.

That same day, however, voters also elected a Republican majority in the Iowa Senate to complement the state’s Republican governor and Republican-controlled House, and they elected a president who since has appointed an opponent of environmental regulation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Then on Jan. 27, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Des Moines Water Works cannot win damages from drainage districts discharging elevated levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River.

Although the main thrust of that lawsuit — that drainage districts should be held accountable for their discharges — remains viable, the ruling has further blunted the urgency of immediate action.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said his Republican colleagues have little appetite to do anything significant (read: expensive) on water quality this session.

In fact, Rozenboom said many of the lawmakers believe that much of the concern about elevated nitrate levels stems from a safe drinking water standard, 10 parts per million, that is unnecessarily stringent.

Rozenboom said he sees no chance for the sales tax increase and little chance for House Study Bill 135, which would fund conservation projects with the proceeds of a tax on utility water sales and money from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. A similar measure, proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad, was approved by the House last year.

Rozenboom, a pork producer and Farm Bureau member, also said he sees no chance for a CAFO — a concentrated animal feeding operation — siting moratorium or for legislators to revisit the master matrix.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said Senate Republicans believe that establishing the right water quality policies must precede allocation of funds.

“Our first priority,” he said, “is to focus on policy where we know what the objective is and we know very clearly how we can measure those results for the taxpayers of Iowa.”

Dix said he and his colleagues agree that in the past “we got the cart ahead of the horse a little bit in talking about the money first.”

But, Johnson said, “Water quality needs to become a big issue in 2018. The people who value it have to make it the number one factor in how they assess the candidates.”

Johnson, a longtime Republican who switched to independent last year to register his disapproval of now President Donald Trump, said supervisors’ petitions for a review of the master matrix have been ignored by GOP senators.

“We know the matrix doesn’t work any more,” said Johnson, who was one of 12 legislators who drafted the law in 2002.

“We did not anticipate the growth” from a few hundred confinements in 2002 to the 6,500 CAFOs reported by the Department of Natural Resources at the end of last year, Johnson said.

Francis Thicke of Fairfield, an organic dairy farmer and environmental activist, said he thinks progress on clean water “hit a brick wall” in the current legislative session.

Thicke said he’s seen no definitive data that Iowa water quality has improved in the three years the state’s nutrient reduction strategy has been in effect. In fact, Thicke said, the ongoing expansion of tile drainage, which increases nitrate discharges into surface water, probably has offset any water quality gains achieved through cover crops, reduced tillage and other practices encouraged by the nutrient reduction strategy.

Iowa developed its nutrient-reduction strategy in response to a multistate, multiagency task force that urged Mississippi River basin states to curtail discharges of nitrate and phosphorus that cause the approximately 6,000-square-mile low-oxygen portion of the Gulf of Mexico known as the dead zone

‘Too busy right now’

Though a practiced and highly skilled parser could probably parse out some progress in the July 2016 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Progress Report, the Iowa Policy Project summarized the report’s 40 pages with, “At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams.”

The project’s executive director, former legislator David Osterberg, said the Legislature “is too busy right now” with such partisan priorities as collective bargaining to address water quality.

Rather than trying to solve problems, Hogg said the Republican majority “is attacking people who have pointed out the problems.”

Hogg referred to House File 316, a bill introduced by Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, a pork producer and Farm Bureau member, that would reorganize the Des Moines Water Works beyond recognition.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe, a leader in the effort to improve Iowa’s water quality, said he sees “nothing but negatives” coming out of the Legislature in the remainder of the session.

Legislators are more interested in “shooting the messenger” than in heeding the message that water pollution is a public health hazard in need of immediate attention, he said.

Stowe said the bill is retaliation for the utility’s lawsuit against rural drainage districts that channel high levels of nitrogen into the Raccoon River, forcing the utility to spend millions to make the water safe to drink.

With farmer-friendly Republicans controlling both legislative chambers, Stowe said he thinks there’s a good chance the bill will pass, effectively ending the lawsuit that focused public attention on nutrient pollution and vexed farmers with its threat that they could be held accountable for pollution leaving their fields.

“Funding for the suit would dry up, and a new board of directors would not support it,” Stowe said.

Hogg said there still is substantial public support for increasing the sales tax to fill the natural resources trust fund approved by 63 percent of Iowa voters in 2010. The problem, he said, is lack of political leadership to do anything about it.

Johnson said the trust fund, filled with $180 million per year from a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase, “is the only way Iowa will achieve the goals of its nutrient reduction strategy.”

A vote on that measure alone would tell Iowans who is for and against cleaning up the state’s water, he said.

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