GOP cuts scrap vital water tools

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Iowa-born conservationist Aldo Leopold famously wrote about a region known as the Driftless Area. Our Iowa Legislature operates in a region known as the Clueless Area.

I’m not sure how else to label it after news broke Tuesday that a Republican education budget blueprint would eliminate funding for both the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.

The Leopold Center, created in 1987 as part of a major legislative effort to protect Iowa’s groundwater, is a national leader in developing environmentally responsible farming practices, the sort of practices that save soil and keep pollutants out of waterways.

But, remarkably, the co-chair of a legislative panel overseeing education funding insists the center’s work is no longer needed. “Most people would tell you that farmers have been educated to that point, the research has been put in place whether it’s cover crops, waterways, those type of things,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, according to Radio Iowa.

Add this to the pantheon of wisdom offered by Republicans on water quality this session, including the insistence some impaired waterways actually are “too clean” and our nitrate problem is caused by federal drinking water standards that are too stringent.

The Iowa Flood Center was created in the wake of the 2008 floods and has done valuable work building the Iowa Flood Information System. The system provides flood prediction maps, river monitoring and tons of real time information that have become invaluable flood preparation tools for local governments, businesses and residents when rising waters threaten. Last fall, the center’s servers crashed as thousands of Iowans sought information on major flooding.

The center also landed a $96 million federal grant last fall to lead watershed improvement efforts across the state, measures addressing both water quality and flood mitigation. If the Republican plan passes, the information system and grant likely go away.

This is shocking stuff, unless you realize this legislative majority and its big ag allies really regard our pressing water quality problems as an issue of public relations and power politics. You simply need to keep telling Iowans that progress is being made. No hard deadlines, measurable benchmarks or, heaven forbid, regulations are needed to get the job done. Trust us.

The problem is being addressed, we swear, although we’re also not entirely convinced there’s a problem.

The Leopold Center, which might do pesky research to undermine the idea that everything’s fine, gets the ax. The Des Moines Water Works, who dared to sue over nitrates in its customers’ water, becomes a target.

What looked like a legislative session that might yield something positive for improving water quality now stands poised to make the problem worse. Instead of finding a way to pay for new efforts, Republicans are preparing to scrap existing tools.

It’s true, the budget process isn’t over yet. These errors may yet be corrected, and should be. But it’s telling and beyond troubling that cluelessness made it this far.

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