Vilsack to state leaders: develop water quality plan soon

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AMES — Tom Vilsack, the nation’s agriculture secretary and a former governor of Iowa, during an official trip here Wednesday put the onus on state leaders to develop a broad, well-funded plan to improve water quality soon.

“There are tremendous opportunities here, but it requires our leaders to step up and say, you know what, regardless of our philosophy, regardless of our ideology, regardless of our differences we are going to figure this out. We’re going to figure this out, and 2017 is going to be the year,” Vilsack said Wednesday on the Iowa State University campus after holding a roundtable discussion with farmers.

A robust debate over water quality programs and funding in Iowa has been sparked largely by two recent events: the federal government said the state must remove harmful nitrates from its waterways that are flowing down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, killing marine life there, and a Des Moines water utility company sued a group of northwest Iowa counties over pollutants flowing into the Raccoon River in Des Moines.

During the 2016 legislative session, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Republicans in control of the Iowa House made separate proposals to create funding for water quality programs. Democrats in control of the Senate discussed various plans, but took no action.

The session ended without any significant new funding for water cleanup, an effort that Iowa State University’s nutrient reduction strategy says will cost in the ballpark of $4 billion.

Vilsack said Wednesday leaders must agree on a plan soon, and he encouraged farmers and all residents to implore those leaders to act.

“It is incumbent upon all of us, particularly in the state of Iowa, to encourage policy makers from the governor and the state legislature, to actually fundamentally, aggressively, in a big and bold way to address the issue of water quality in this state,” Vilsack said. “We need to take action and there needs to be significant resources put at the state and federal level toward water quality.”

Branstad discussed water quality programs Monday at the Iowa State Fair. He said he is optimistic he and legislators can agree on a funding plan in 2017 after failing to do so in 2016, noting some big legislative packages take multiple years to gain approval.

Vilsack appeared with Branstad at a news conference just before the 2016 legislative session to express his support for the governor’s water quality funding plan to share future revenue from a 1 percent local option sales tax for school infrastructure. Lawmakers were cool to the plan because it diverted funds from a program approved by voters to fund education infrastructure.

Vilsack said Wednesday he will continue to work with state leaders to develop a plan and leverage federal resources where possible.

“At the end of the day there has to be a meeting of the minds on this issue. It’s not a situation of having competing plans. It’s a question of sitting down and developing a comprehensive well-thought-out plan that provides significant resources and incentives and provides accountability and responsibility on this issue,” Vilsack said. “And it is up to every single political leader in this state to get behind this effort. Every single one of us has to be engaged in this.”

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