Government

Iowa Senate debates water quality - after bill sent to governor

Hogg terms measure 'a facade,' but Northey says it's a start

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A day after a bill committing $282 million over 12 years to water quality improvement was approved by the Iowa Legislature, the Senate had what one member called “the great water debate in the Iowa Senate of 2018.”

“I think that ends the discussion legislatively,” Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said during points of personal privilege Wednesday as senators rose to criticize and defend Senate File 512. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ga=87&ba=sf512

The bill, approved by the Senate last year, was approved by the House on Tuesday and is on its way to the governor.

“Gov. Reynolds is going to probably find some fancy backdrop to sign the bill and think she’s done something, when it really hasn’t,” Hogg continued. “It is a facade.”

The bill’s shortcomings — in addition to appropriating too little money and taking the funding from the wrong sources, according to some senators — it doesn’t require enough monitoring that Iowans will know if progress is being made.

“I could spit in the Little Sioux River at Spencer and think I made an impact,” Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, said. The bill “falls far short of what this state needs. There have been a lot of promises about water quality, but we never get there.”

But progress is being made. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey told a House-Senate appropriations subcommittee.

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“We certainly spend a lot of dollars and efforts right now measuring pieces,” he said. “But the challenge is measuring what? It’s hard to get one measurement for the state of Iowa.

“It’s a big state with billions of gallons of water moving all of the time, so that will not be one number,” he said. “It will be scores of numbers from scores of locations.”

Northey told the subcommittee that the state, working with federal agencies, farmers, landowners and private companies, is beginning to scale up water quality improvement programs.

The state’s relatively small investment will be multiplied by using those funds to attract matching dollars.

Johnson called the legislation a “Farm Bureau bill, bought and paid for ... written by Republicans for Republicans” without input from environmental groups.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who represents Sioux County in northwest Iowa, defended farmers’ activities in protecting water resources.

“I live in Sioux County, No. 1 ag county with most cattle and hogs in the nation,” he said, “and multiple times Sioux County was ranked as the healthiest county in our state.”

“Farmers are good people” who care for their land “because they want to do it for what’s best for Iowa,” Feenstra said. “I’m standing up for the farmer every time you tramp on the farmer.”

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“Iowa farmers are interested in their children, their grandchildren, and they’re doing this because they want to preserve the soil, they want to preserve Iowa,” added Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, a farmer. “They’re not doing it for government incentives.”

Northey made a similar point in his remarks, telling the committee that much conservation work is being done on farmers’ own dime either without cost-share funds or in addition to those funds.

With water quality legislation headed to the governor, the focus now is on scaling up programs to make a greater impact on water quality, Northey said.

The use of cover crops, for example, has increased from 50,000 acres a few years ago to 600,000 acres, he said.

“So it’s real, but that’s still only 3 percent of the land,” he said.

Scaling up may sound easy, “but it’s tens of thousands of farm families making decisions, it’s investments in thousands of grain drills and people producing seed, it’s folks out there with dirt movers building bioreactors one at a time or a nutrient reduction wetland one at a time,” Northey said.

“It’s like saying I can teach a student something new, but to teach every student in Iowa requires scale,” he said. “If you don’t scale, you certainly don’t make the impact on water quality. Five years ago we said we had to start. Now we have to continue to scale.”

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