Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Want cleaner water? Hubbell says vote for it

Iowa voters approved putting the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in the state constitution in 2010. The trust fund could provide tens of millions of dollars annually for controlling fertilizer runoff. But some of those same voters helped elect Terry Branstad as governor, who championed voluntary efforts by farmers to improve water quality. Then-Gov. Branstad talked April 27, 2016, to a group of farmers, conservationists and government employees at the Weber Farm north of Dysart. He told the group there is a need for incentives to encourage conservation practices, but said he hoped farmers would take action on their own. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa voters approved putting the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in the state constitution in 2010. The trust fund could provide tens of millions of dollars annually for controlling fertilizer runoff. But some of those same voters helped elect Terry Branstad as governor, who championed voluntary efforts by farmers to improve water quality. Then-Gov. Branstad talked April 27, 2016, to a group of farmers, conservationists and government employees at the Weber Farm north of Dysart. He told the group there is a need for incentives to encourage conservation practices, but said he hoped farmers would take action on their own. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Farming takes a lot of the heat for Iowa’s water quality problems. But what about voting?

“I look at it and I see there are people out there contributing to the water quality problem,” Fred Hubbell, a Democratic candidate for governor, told our editorial board recently.

“But I think all Iowans are contributing to the water quality problem because we’ve never voted out the people who refuse to address it in the Legislature,” Hubbell said. “In my view, we’re all responsible. We all need to step up and be part of the solution.”

Voters rarely make the list of water troublemakers. Usually, it’s nitrates and phosphorus running off farmland that catch most of the flak. A few folks still want to blame golf courses and goose poop, but the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy says the culprit mainly is cropland.

And after all, it was Iowa voters, 63 percent of them, who approved putting the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in the state constitution in 2010. The trust fund could provide tens of millions of dollars annually for controlling fertilizer runoff. Voters in some Iowa counties, including 74 percent of them in Linn County, have approved local conservation tax levies.

Hubbell knows this, of course, considering he was active in efforts to create the trust fund and donated $30,000 in 2010 to the campaign working for its passage.

But the Des Moines business executive has a point about voters.

Some of the same voters who approved creating the trust fund also elected Gov. Terry Branstad, whose tenure was about as beneficial to Iowa waters as an algae bloom.

This was predictable, given his track record on the environment. We’ve elected lawmakers who talk a good water game only to slice and dice environmental programs. We gave Republicans, who have been the most hostile to meaningful water cleanup efforts, control of the whole Statehouse.

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They approved a bill signed earlier this year by Gov. Kim Reynolds providing dollars for water quality improvement measures on the farm, but with no requirements for measuring whether they work. This window dressing will be spun to voters as a major accomplishment. Will we buy it?

Sure, we didn’t dump nitrates into the nearest stream. But how many of us pinned down a local legislative candidate and asked what’s the plan? Or held him or her to a promise to so something?

In Hubbell’s case, I can help.

“What I want to do is lead the effort to create long-term, permanent, sustainable funding for water quality issues,” Hubbell said. His preferred funding source is a three-eighths cent sales tax increase to fill the constitutional trust fund.

“We’ve been very supportive of that direction. The reason I like that is because it’s constitutionally protected,” Hubbell said. He cites previous broken state promises, such as spending lottery proceeds on education, as evidence environmental bucks must be protected.

“We need a governor who is going to go out and convince the voters and convince the public to convince their lawmakers to vote for it,” Hubbell said.

He would support cost-sharing partnerships with landowners to help pay for runoff reduction measures, so long as beefed-up water quality monitoring can measure progress, with results made public. He also would require farmers to keep conservation practices in place long-term.

The program would be voluntary, “to start with,” Hubbell said.

“I’m a believer that we should be doing voluntary cost incentives first, and if citizens and farmers aren’t happy with the results, if we’re not getting enough buy in, enough people aren’t doing it, then we need to look at other alternatives,” Hubbell said.

He mentioned Minnesota, where farmers are required to plant buffer strips along waterways.

“Voluntary” might be a dirty word among some Democratic primary voters who want strict, mandatory regulations forcing farmers to pay for runoff reduction, not sales-tax payers. They may see Hubbell as standing for the status quo.

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But his stance realistically reflects the political landscape he likely would face as governor, with perhaps one legislative chamber in the hands of Republicans, if not two. Polls show raising the tax to fill the fund is popular. The idea has broad Democratic backing and some Republican support. Mandates, at least in the beginning, won’t fly under the Golden Dome of Wisdom. And if Hubbell doesn’t get there, he definitely can blame voters.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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